ST. LOUIS -- Barry Zito must have done a real number on the St. Louis Cardinals.
That's as good an explanation as any for the dramatic turnaround in the Cardinals' fortunes against left-handers, which become an especially pressing matter this weekend, when the Los Angeles Dodgers have lefties Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu lined up for Games 6 and 7 (if necessary) of the National League Championship Series.
The Cardinals' 3-2 edge in the series and homefield advantage at Busch Stadium don't look quite as imposing when considering the prospect they'll be going against two starters who dominated them earlier in the NLCS, holding them to one unearned run in a combined 13 innings.
They're not the only lefties to keep St. Louis hitters at bay this year, in a rather inexplicable turn of events.
The Cardinals went 31-17 against left-handed starters in 2012 and posted a .787 on-base plus slugging percentage, second-best in the NL, when facing lefties overall.
The last lefty starter they saw last year was Zito, who silenced them over 7 2/3 innings in a 5-0 Game 5 loss that tilted the NLCS in favor of the San Francisco Giants, who went on to claim the pennant and the World Series.
This year, St. Louis went 19-23 against left-handed starters and saw its OPS against all lefties drop more than 100 points to .672, falling to 13th in the league.
"Ever since I've been here, that's kind of been the topic, the Cardinals have kind of struggled, especially having a lot of righties that can do some damage," third baseman David Freese said. "I don't know how to explain it."
It is puzzling, considering most of the season the lineup was about the same as in 2012.
The exceptions were at second base, where Matt Carpenter is now starting full time over Daniel Descalso, a fellow lefty hitter, and at shortstop, where Pete Kozma has replaced the injured Rafael Furcal. From early September on, rookie Matt Adams took over at first for Allen Craig, who is out with a foot injury.
A look at the career OPS of the regulars reveals mostly the usual platoon splits, although Matt Holliday actually hits righties a bit better (.924 OPS vs. .900) and switch-hitter Carlos Beltran goes against the norm by performing better from the right side (.878 vs. .847).
The only starter with a split difference of more than 100 points is the lefty-swinging Adams, who has a career OPS of .847 against righties and .594 when facing lefties.
That hardly explains the Cardinals ranking 13th in the league in batting average (.238) and strikeout rate (19.2%) against lefties during the season.
In the playoffs, St. Louis has scored a total of three runs - one unearned - in 19 innings while losing two of three games against lefty starters.
"As a team you don't dwell on those statistics. To us those stats don't mean anything," Beltran said. "You have to find a way to go out and, regardless of whether you're facing a right-hander or left-hander, focus on having a good game plan, having the hitters at the top of the lineup get on base and each one of us do his job."
That might prove a daunting challenge against Kershaw and Ryu, who ranked first (.244) and 19th (.299) in the league, respectively, in opponents' on-base percentage.
The Cardinals' offensive woes in this series have not been limited to pitchers throwing from one side or the other. The NL's most prolific offense has produced 12 runs in five games while batting .178.
But as Adams points out, the Cardinals battled Kershaw and beat him 1-0 in Game 2, and they'll be sending out the same starter they did that Saturday, hotshot rookie Michael Wacha.
And the last two games in Los Angeles provided glimpses that the St. Louis offense might be starting to come around, as the club scored four runs in each. Holliday, who went 0-for-12 in the first three games, collected five hits and three RBI in the last two.
A Holliday double sparked the Cardinals' two-run uprising in the ninth inning of Game 5 against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, which manager Mike Matheny deemed an encouraging sign even though the rally fell short and L.A. prevailed 6-4.
"We're seeing some better swings overall," Matheny said. "As we've watched this team all season long, you can kind of sense when things are getting ready to click. We're getting a little closer there."