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FRANCISCO -- Highly competitive matchups have characterized this postseason. Expect the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals to continue this trend in the National League Championship Series.
The teams split their regular-season series, winning three games apiece. Both have marquee performers behind the plate (Buster Posey, Yadier Molina). Both possess resolute starting pitching and underpublicized but extremely efficient bullpens. Both are led by catchers-turned-managers who command respect.
As is usually the case, this series likely will be won by the team that executes in the most timely fashion. How else did St. Louis, the NL's second Wild Card representative, outlast Washington, which finished with baseball's best record? How else did the Giants, who trailed Cincinnati two games to none in their NL Division Series, accomplish a rare feat by winning three games in a row?
Here are five elements the Giants must incorporate into their game to defeat the Cardinals in the NLCS and advance to the World Series:
1. Pitchers, turn back the clock.
Collectively, the Giants' starters were indomitable during the 2010 postseason. They posted a 2.23 ERA to pace San Francisco past Atlanta, Philadelphia and Texas. Asking the Giants to duplicate such a performance would be unreasonable. But the elevated competition of the postseason demands such superlative efforts.
Three of the starters from that postseason remain with the Giants: Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum. Bumgarner and Cain certainly were better regular-season pitchers this year than they were in 2010. But their uneven performances in the NLDS left room for improvement. Lincecum's struggles have been well-documented, and though his spellbinding relief outing in Game 4 of the NLDS might have earned him a start against the Cardinals, it's anybody's guess whether he can sustain that excellence.
Nevertheless, there are no such things as flukes. And experience helps. If the Giants' pitching propelled them through the postseason once, it can happen again.
2. Maintain perfection.
That's impossible, of course. But the Cardinals are the type of team that can seize upon an opponent's slightest lapse. Their Game 5 victory over Washington in their NLDS reinforced this.
Thus, San Francisco pitchers must avoid walks. San Francisco issued an average of three walks per nine innings in the NLDS against Cincinnati; the Giants would be well-advised to trim that figure, even if only by a slight amount. Defensively, the Giants were charged with only two errors and received superb plays from outfielders Angel Pagan and Hunter Pence, shortstop Brandon Crawford and Posey. They must remain consistent afield, while retaining their flair for the spectacular.
3. Protect this house.
This is a given for any team in any sport that owns home-field advantage. But it's especially true in this case.
The Cardinals finished 50-31 at Busch Stadium, sharing the NL's best home record with Cincinnati and Washington. The Giants performed admirably on the road during the regular season (46-35) and, of course, became only the second team to overcome a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-five postseason series by winning three consecutive road games at Cincinnati to advance to the NLCS. But though the Giants won twice at St. Louis in the regular season, the task promises to be tougher in October, when passionate Cardinals fans become especially rabid.
Therefore, winning the opening two games at AT&T Park isn't imperative for the Giants. But it's close.
4. Keep them down.
Many of the top Cardinals players endured subpar regular-season performances against the Giants, including Carlos Beltran (.214), Allen Craig (.200), Daniel Descalso (.063), David Freese (.250), Matt Holliday (.150) and Molina (.250). It's up to San Francisco's pitchers to keep these respectable hitters muzzled.
It should be noted that some of these Cardinals were experiencing injury issues earlier in the season. They're all healthy now.
Three Reds thrived against the Giants in the NLDS -- Joey Votto (.389), Brandon Phillips (.375) and Ryan Ludwick (.333). But Votto didn't have an extra-base hit, and each of Ludwick's series-high three homers came with nobody on base. This helped Giants pitchers remember that lofty batting averages don't always assure high productivity.
5. Sustain momentum.
Both teams enter this series riding a tidal wave of momentum. It's impossible to determine whether either club holds an edge in this area. Fortune's pendulum likely will swing toward the club that gets the first lucky break or two, scores quickly or pitches out of an early jam. But the Cardinals, who happen to be the reigning World Series champions, are at least as stubborn as the Giants. St. Louis won't yield psychological, mental or emotional ground easily. That's another indication that the Giants are in for a more rigorous series than the one they just experienced.