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Cardinals Series Preview: Show-Me Showdown

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No matter what high school you went to, this is a big series.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals and Cardinals have hooked up 80 times since interleague play began, with the Cardinals winning 46 of those contests (although of course, the Royals took the most important interleague games from the Cardinals). For all of those regular season matchups, the Cardinals were clearly the better team, while the Royals just looked to grab a game, maybe two to get bragging rights. We could beat our chest for a weekend, but we secretly all knew the Cards were better, just like how St. Louis has gotten a good BBQ restaurant or two, but deep down they know Kansas City BBQ is much, much better.

That dynamic changes this year. The Royals stand toe-to-toe with the Cardinals as one of the best teams in baseball. The Cardinals have the best record in the National League. The Royals have the best record in the American League. The Cardinals have a run differential of +56. The Royals have a run differential of +64. This is very possibly a World Series preview.

Like the Royals, the Cardinals have cooled down a bit after a hot start, dropping seven of their last twelve contests. The two teams have succeeded in very similar fashion - with dominant pitching, solid defense, and unexpectedly awesome hitting. The Cardinals lead the National League in ERA, but unlike the Royals, have gotten terrific performances out of their starting pitchers all year, leading baseball with a 3.05 ERA from their starters. The team has overcome the loss of staff ace Adam Wainwright, out all year with an Achilles injury, with Lance Lynn emerging as the best pitcher on the staff. Lynn has quietly become one of the best pitchers in the game, ranking 19th in fWAR since the start of the 2014 season, and his 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings is fifth among all starters this year. Lynn is also one of the toughest pitchers in baseball to hit a home run against.

Longtime veteran John Lackey has enjoyed a renaissance in St. Louis, although he has been a bit BABIP-lucky so far this year. Lackey has a career 3.54 ERA in ten starts against the Royals, including a 3.10 ERA at Kauffman Stadium. Twenty-three year old Michael Wacha has gotten off to a terrific start this year, although he has also been very BABIP-lucky and has seen his strikeout rate decline dramatically. Wacha has one of the better cutters in the game, but has had trouble staying healthy thus far in his career.

The Cardinals bullpen has the third-best ERA in the game, and actually out-performs the Royals' vaunted pen in FIP. Lee's Summit native Trevor Rosenthal has a 0.93 ERA and has converted 13 out of 14 save opportunities. Right-hander Sean Manness serves as the setup man with Jordan Walden on the disabled list with a shoulder strain. Left-hander Kevin Siegrist has been excellent in a specialist role and long-reliever Carlos Villanueva has posted a miniscule 0.50 ERA thus far.

A big reason for the Cardinals hot start however, is their offense. Like the Royals, the Cardinals struggled to score runs at times last year, finishing ninth in the National League in runs scored, with only the Royals hitting fewer home runs. This year the Cardinals are averaging 4.4 runs per game, fourth in the league, thanks to the third-best on-base percentage and fourth-best slugging percentage. All-Stars Matt Holliday and Matt Carpenter have gotten off to fantastic starts and former top prospect Kolten Wong has settled in as a terrific table-setter. The Cardinals are without starting centerfielder Jon Jay, but former Angels outfielders Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk have filled in well.

The Cardinals have flashed some leather this year and are tied for sixth in all of baseball in Defensive Runs Saved with +11. Some of the individual numbers look a bit suspicious however, with Mark Reynolds and Matt Adams each at +4 despite lackluster reputations, and Peter Bourjos at -3 despite a terrific reputation. Still, there is no doubt the addition of Gold Glover Jason Heyward has helped out, and with him next to Bourjos or Randal Grichuk, the Cardinals should be able to hunt down some flyballs.

The Cardinals, who once brought stolen bases into the limelight in the 1980s, have shunned the practice more recently. They were second-to-last in the league in steals last year and have swiped just 17 bases this year, while being caught 11 times for an ugly success rate of 60.7%. The last Cardinals player to steal as many as 30 bases in a season was Edgar Renteria in 2003. Lou Brock, they ain't.

The Royals took three of four from the Cardinals, very nearly sweeping all four games. Kansas City may have snuck up on the Cardinals last year, but there will be no surprise this year. The Royals have made it clear they are one of the best teams in baseball, as are the Cardinals. This should be a tremendously exciting series with a bit more than petty bragging rights on the line.