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Solid Cardinals get it done vs. splashier Dodgers

St. Louis offense, pitching, defense matches up to talented NLCS foe

ST. LOUIS -- It is no insult to the Pittsburgh Pirates to note that the St. Louis Cardinals have moved up in competitive class as they have moved on to the 2013 National League Championship Series.

The results didn't diminish for the Cardinals as they began their second round of postseason baseball. It took 13 innings, but the Cards defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, 3-2, on Friday night and early Saturday morning.

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People unfamiliar with the Cardinals may have looked at the pitching matchup for Game 1 and decided it was no contest in the other direction. In fact, people unfamiliar with the Cards would consider the Dodgers distinct favorites in the NLCS. But these things aren't won on the basis of name recognition and size of payroll.

The Dodgers have an indisputably talented bunch of position players. They are, without unreasonable debate, more talented than the Redbirds in some instances. The Cardinals have no shortstop with the all-around abilities of Hanley Ramirez, no first baseman as accomplished in all facets of the game as Adrian Gonzalez, no player as dynamic, as explosive as Yasiel Puig. The Dodgers would be even more talented were it not for the injury to outfielder Matt Kemp, one of the game's best.

There is a lot of talk around St. Louis about how the Dodgers ought to be good after all the money they've paid these players. In these conversations, the Dodgers are pictured as the extremely rich while the Cards are seen as solid citizens of baseball's middle class.

But this is not a morality play, not a presidential election, and not a class struggle. It is a best-of-seven series to determine the NL championship and the league's representative in the Fall Classic. As we saw Friday night in Game 1, it will be quite a contest.

Even though the Cardinals' position players are not as highly publicized as their Dodgers counterparts, they did belong to an offense that was more productive overall. St. Louis led the NL in runs scored, while Los Angeles was merely seventh.

The Cards were 13th in home runs and last in stolen bases. But they set a 39-year best by hitting an astounding .330 with runners in scoring position. The Dodgers were mortals in this category, at .252.

The Cardinals are a more sure-handed bunch than the Dodgers -- 75 errors to 109 for Los Angeles during the regular season. The Dodgers have an edge in pitching numbers -- a 3.25 team ERA to 3.42 for the Redbirds. But those numbers understate the role of recent additions to the St. Louis rotation such as the astounding Michael Wacha and Friday night's starter, Joe Kelly, who made 12 of his 15 starts for the Cards this year after the All-Star break. Kelly had a 1.91 ERA in the second half of the season, not to mention a 9-2 record.

When Kelly started against the Dodgers' Zack Greinke in Game 1, this was seen by some as a potential walkover. Yes, Greinke won the 2009 American League Cy Young Award, and yes, he is another extremely well-paid free agent who has found a home with the Dodgers. But because Kelly had a newer and somewhat lower profile did not mean the Cardinals were overmatched in this game.

A similar situation will take place Saturday afternoon in Game 2 (3 p.m. CT, TBS) when the Dodgers start Clayton Kershaw, while the Cards go with Wacha. Kershaw has already won one NL Cy Young Award and is the favorite to win another one for his work this season. Wacha has made 10 Major League starts. But over the last two starts, he was as good as anybody in the world.

If you wanted a test of the Cardinals' pitching depth, particularly in the bullpen, the 13-inning victory in Game 1 offered a very healthy perspective. Kelly scrambled in and out of trouble, without his absolute best stuff, but he was still talented and tough enough to make it work. He gave up two runs over six innings, losing no ground to Greinke in the process.

Six Redbirds relievers kept the Dodgers scoreless after the sixth inning, including Seth Maness, 24, Carlos Martinez, 22, and Trevor Rosenthal, 23. Lance Lynn, typically a starter, worked the last two innings and picked up the victory.

"I believe that confidence and success breeds more confidence and success," Cards manager Mike Matheny said. "Hopefully, the guys will feel good about their chances of getting the job done, because we're going to throw them back in there. We trust them in big situations. The only way you can feel good about those is to be in them and have some success.

"Once again, we're exposing some of these kids to things that they haven't been exposed to before, and they keep doing the job. So we just enjoy throwing them back out there."

What you saw in this game may be indicative of a larger truth. The Dodgers may have the more talented individuals. But the Cardinals may be the better baseball team.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for

St. Louis Cardinals, Zack Greinke, Joe Kelly, Clayton Kershaw, Lance Lynn, Seth Maness, Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha