Break out the billy goats. All signs point to trouble should the Cardinals begin the 2015 MLB playoffs with a Divisional Series showdown against the Chicago Cubs.
No team enters the postseason hotter. Chicago polished off 2015 with a 19-9 mark in September,
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best in the bigs for the month, and an eight-game winning streak punctuated by sweeps of the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers.
Two players in particular set the tone during that run. Ace Jake Arrieta announced his presence with authority by going 4-0 with a 0.45 ERA (2 ER/40.0 IP) in five starts. Streaky infielder Starlin Castro led the majors with a .426 batting average (29-for-68), the third-highest September average in franchise history.
Okay, okay. You get it. Now, how can the Cardinals kill that momentum and make the universe right? With Cubs fans crying, “Wait ’til next year!” as the Cardinals move on toward another title? Observe:
Turn the Cubs’ aggressiveness against them. Chicago, as noted time and time again by baseball writers everywhere, is a young team. And youths tend to let their energy bubble over at playoff time. So expect a big chunk of the team’s core — Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler — to be a little overeager during the 2015 MLB playoffs. They’re generally not a patient team anyway. No big league lineup struck out more this year. You know what frustrates free swingers like that? Breaking balls. Lots and lots of breaking balls, with heaters at different eye levels mixed in to keep them honest.
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Force them to play small ball. Shocker: the Cubs don’t like it. Only the New York Mets had fewer sacrifices among National League teams than Chicago’s 31. And for a team with a lineup full of mashers who can drive the ball to the deep parts of any ballpark, the Cubs have a surprisingly few 35 sacrifice flies on the year. St. Louis has the most (42) among N.L. teams in the 2015 MLB playoffs. Interestingly, the Cubs’ savviest baserunners are two power-hitting rookies, catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber (3.4 baserunning runs, according to Baseball Prospectus) and third baseman Kris Bryant (2.4 BRR). Everyone else is about or below average. So if the Cardinals’ stingy pitching staff can keep the ball in the yard, the Cubs are in trouble.
Run like the wind. Everyone else has. The 135 bags opponents stole on the Cubs this year is second most in the big leagues. (More good news: Should the Pirates win the Wild Card, they allowed the most, 142.) Opposing basestealers succeed at a 78 percent clip against Cubs backstops. Starting catcher Miguel Montero is more of an offensive threat. Veteran David Ross is more of a game manager. Kyle Schwarber played 15 games behind the dish this year, but he’s really a left fielder at this point. So, when the Cardinals get on, the light should be green at all times.