The 2012 National League Championship Series starts Sunday night at AT&T Park with the West Division-champion Giants hosting the wild-card defending champion St. Louis Cardinals (8:07 p.m. ET on ESPN Radio). Need to get caught up? No problem, we've got you covered.
The San Francisco Giants won the 2010 World Series. The St. Louis Cardinals won it all in 2011. This NLCS marks the first time the two previous World Series champions will face off in a league championship series. The Cardinals are making their second consecutive NLCS appearance and seventh since 2000. Don't forget the defending champions lost their future Hall of Fame manager (Tony LaRussa) to retirement, future Hall of Fame first baseman (Albert Pujols) to free agency and former Cy Young Award winning pitcher (Chris Carpenter) to injury for most of the season.
Halloween arrives early with two zombie teams; the Giants and Cardinals advanced after being left for dead. San Francisco lost its first two games at home before an improbable, unprecedented three-game sweep in Cincinnati to take the NLDS against the 2-seed. St. Louis just completed a back-from-the-dead comeback win in Game 5 at Washington. The Cardinals found themselves down to their last strike in the top of the ninth inning two separate times before crushing the Washington Nationals' hopes with a stunning comeback. With apologies to my friends who are Reds and Nationals fans, the Giants and Cardinals exemplify what makes baseball so great -- anything can happen. These Zombie Cardinals are terrifying (just ask the Texas Rangers), while St. Louis has won its past six postseason elimination games.
Catchers in the rye
How often do you have a battle of All-Stars at the catcher position? This series brings us Yadier Molina versus Buster Posey. Molina is widely regarded as the best defensive catcher in the game (who is having an excellent offensive year), while Posey won the National League batting title and may win the MVP (he's also very good behind the plate). I give the slight edge to Posey because he has rebounded spectacularly from a devastating leg injury last season. We can all agree having Molina and Posey in the same postseason series with a World Series spot on the line is pretty great.
The Carlos Beltran factor
At some point, you have to wonder if Carlos Beltran is actually trolling Mets fans with his postseason performance. After striking out on an Adam Wainwright curveball to end the 2006 NLCS against the Cardinals, Beltran, now with St. Louis, seemingly hasn't struck out in the postseason since. The Giants acquired him from the Mets last season, but he got hurt and the Giants didn't make the playoffs in 2011. Beltran signed with St. Louis this past offseason and significantly eased the pain of Pujols' departure.
In the NLDS, Beltran led the Cardinals' powerful offense with a .444 batting average, .954 slugging percentage, two home runs, four RBIs and 17 total bases in the five-game series. In six career postseason series, Beltran has a .375 batting average, 13 home runs, 23 RBIs and an eye-popping 1.306 OPS. There's no reason to believe his hot hitting won't continue against the Giants.
Two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum had such a nightmarish season (10-15, 5.18 ERA) for the Giants, he lost his starting spot in the postseason rotation to Barry Zito. Lincecum pitched well out of the bullpen in the NLDS and all signs point to Big Time Timmy Jim rejoining the rotation in the NLCS as the Game 4 starter (the starters for the first three games are Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain).
The Cardinals announced Lance Lynn will get the ball in Game 1 after pitching out of the bullpen in the Division Series. The single biggest X factor for the Cardinals' pitching staff is the return of Carpenter. The 2005 Cy Young Award winner wasn't even supposed to pitch this season after surgery in July, and yet, here he is, fresh off a Game 3 NLDS win over the Nationals and ready for another World Series run.