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NL Wild Card Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

Can the Cardinals late-season magic unseat the 106 game winners?

(5) St. Louis Cardinals vs. (4) Los Angeles Dodgers

 

Wednesday, October 6th at 8:10 p.m. ET on TBS from Dodgers Stadium

Adam Wainwright (17-7, 3.05 ERA, 174 K) vs. Max Scherzer (8-4, 2.76 ERA, 147 K)

 

Recent History

 

You have to feel for the Cardinals – after an amazing 17 game win streak which formed part of a 22-9 finish in the five weeks to the end of the regular season, their reward in a one-game playoff against a team with 106 wins and a better record in that same five-week span, 22-7. The Cardinals did win three of their seven games against the Dodgers this season, including the last two of a four-game series in early September. They will also take heart from previous meetings against the Dodgers in the postseason.

The two teams have faced each other five times since the start of league playoffs in 1969, with the Dodgers losing four of those meetings, most recently a 3-1 defeat in the 2014 National League Division Series. In the regular season, the Dodgers took the season series 4-3, with the most recent set resulting in a 2-2 split at the beginning of September. Both Scherzer and Wainwright took home victories in that series, Scherzer going 8 shutout innings with 13 Ks on September 6th and Wainwright giving up 4 over 8.1 two days later in a 5-4 victory (though two of those runs were a “Careful Icarus” in the 9th inning).

The Cardinals return to the postseason for the third straight year. They were downed by the Padres in the extended Wild Card Series in 2020, losing the decisive game of a three-game series. In 2019, the Cardinals reached the National League Championship Series only to be routed by the eventual World Champions, the Washington Nationals, 4-0. Meanwhile, the Dodgers look to repeat as World Champs.

 

Los Angeles Dodgers (106-57)

Offense

Order Name / Position G PA AVG OBP SLG HR wRC+ wOBA
1 Mookie Betts – RF 122 550 .264 .367 .487 23 131 .365
2 Corey Seager – SS 95 409 .306 .394 .521 16 147 .389
3 Trea Turner – 2B* 148 646 .328 .375 .536 28 142 .386
4 Justin Turner – 3B 151 612 .278 .361 .471 27 127 .358
5 Will Smith – C 130 501 .258 .365 .495 25 130 .364
6 Albert Pujols – 1B* 109 296 .236 .284 .433 17 90 .302
7 AJ Pollock – LF 117 422 .297 .355 .536 21 137 .375
8 Chris Taylor – CF 148 582 .254 .344 .438 20 114 .338
9 Max Scherzer – P* 30 63 .000 .000 .000 0 -100 .000
Bench Cody Bellinger – 1B/OF 95 350 .165 .240 .302 10 48 .237
Gavin Lux – 2B/SS 102 381 .242 .328 .364 7 91 .303
Matt Beaty – 1B/OF 120 234 .270 .363 .402 7 114 .339
Austin Barnes – C 77 225 .215 .299 .345 6 79 .285

* – combined stats from multiple teams

Despite weathering various injuries and an absolute dud of a year from former MVP Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers offense still ranked top-five in MLB this year in several offensive categories, including home runs, fWAR, OBP, and runs scored. They have their typical stable of excellent, versatile pieces, and up and down the lineup, you’ll find guys with power aplenty. They also get on base early and often, as evidenced by their 9.8% walk rate, second in MLB.

It all starts with the dynamic trio of Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, and Trea Turner, the latter of whom should earn top-5 MVP consideration for his work with Washington and L.A. this year. Justin Turner has been consistently excellent, as has Will Smith, who’s earned the lion’s share of starts behind the dish despite Dave Roberts‘ stated desire for him to split time with Austin Barnes. A.J. Pollock has been perhaps the biggest surprise offensively, producing the third-best wRC+ on the team in 117 games.

With Max Muncy officially out at least through the NLDS with an arm injury, the biggest question immediately became who starts in his place at first. One option is Bellinger, who has played 262 career games at first base, but just two starts there this season. They might also go with Matt Beaty, a lefty who could match up well against Adam Wainwright. But the most likely choice seems to be Albert Pujols, who came on to replace Muncy on Sunday. Pujols, of course, spent several years as Wainwright’s teammate in St. Louis, and he drew the start the last time they faced him, back on September 8th (he went 0-3). Plus, it can’t hurt to get a little of that devil magic on their side.

For the one-game set, it’s likely they’ll carry a few extra bench bats on the roster. Be on the lookout for names like Zach McKinstry, Luke Raley, Billy McKinney, or even Steven Souza Jr. at the bottom of the lineup card, as all four of them worked out with the team on Tuesday.

 

Starting Pitcher: Max Scherzer (full season stats)

GS IP ERA FIP WHIP K% BB%
30 179.1 2.46 2.97 0.86 34.1% 5.2%

That ERA and WHIP are both career-lows for Scherzer, if you can believe it. After joining the Dodgers in August, Mad Max went on a remarkable 11-start, 68-IP run where he allowed just 15 earned runs, 48 hits, and a remarkable 89-8 K-BB ratio. At 37 years old, he’s been everything they could’ve wanted and more. And compared to Wainwright, he’s practically a youngster!

In two starts against the Cardinals this year (once with Washington, once with L.A.), Scherzer threw 14.0 spotless innings with a total of zero earned runs, 10 hits, 1 walk, and 22 strikeouts. In the most recent matchup on September 6th, he struck out 13 redbirds over eight dominant frames in St. Louis. If he can repeat that performance on Tuesday, it’s hard to imagine the Dodgers losing.

 

Projected Bullpen

Role Name Throws IP SV ERA FIP WHIP K% BB%
Closer Kenley Jansen R 69.0 38 2.22 3.08 1.04 30.9% 12.9%
Setup Blake Treinen R 72.1 7 1.99 2.88 0.98 29.7% 8.7%
Mid Alex Vesia L 40.0 1 2.25 4.22 0.98 33.5% 13.7%
Mid Joe Kelly R 44.0 2 2.86 3.08 0.98 27.5% 8.2%
Mid Phil Bickford* R 51.1 1 2.81 3.93 1.07 28.5% 9.2%
Mid Corey Knebel R 25.2 3 2.45 2.90 0.97 29.7% 8.9%
Mid Evan Phillips* R 13.1 1 3.38 3.84 1.20 19.0% 8.6%
Long Julio Urías L 185.2 0 2.96 3.13 1.02 26.2% 5.1%
Long Tony Gonsolin R 55.2 0 3.23 4.53 1.35 27.2% 14.2%

* – combined stats from multiple teams

It was an up-and-down year for the Dodgers’ bullpen, but they still ranked near the top-two in the NL in fWAR, ERA, and WHIP. Closer Kenley Jansen looked all too mortal for stretches, including an unfortunate July series against the Giants when he gave up seven total runs and took blown save losses on consecutive days. However, he rebounded down the stretch with an excellent final month, giving up just one run and four hits and striking out 18 over his last 13.2 innings (8-8 in saves).

One of their most underrated moves in the offseason was bringing back Blake Treinen, who proved to be one of the best set-up men in baseball this year. Much of his success comes thanks to his ability to induce ground balls, as his 52.6 GB% ranked fourth in the league among relievers with 60+ innings pitched.

It was announced on Tuesday that Walker Buehler, the presumed NLDS Game 1 starter should it get to that point, will not be on the wild card roster. Combine that with Clayton Kershaw’s injury, and there’s certainly space available in the middle innings. I gave the nod to Evan Phillips due to the Cardinals’ righty-heavy roster, but some other names you might see here include Justin Bruihl, David Price, and Brusdar Graterol.

If Scherzer isn’t totally dominant, there’s a good chance Julio Urías will see some action in relief, though they’d like to save him for Saturday’s Game 2 start. That strategy worked out pretty well in 2020.

 

How They Got Here

After years of dominating the regular season only to come up just short in the postseason, the Los Angeles Dodgers finally broke through last year for their first world championship in 32 years. Despite bringing back nearly the same team, the defending champs reloaded (can you even call that reloading, or is it just adding extra ammunition to a fully-loaded gat?). With Turner and Treinen re-signed, and the offseason’s biggest free-agent fish netted in Trevor Bauer, they appeared primed to run it back in 2021.

Still, adversity hit, as it tends to do. Dustin May was lost to Tommy John in May. Bauer became wrapped up in a sexual assault investigation that alienated him from fans and teammates alike, inevitably ending his season as well. And eight-time All-Star Kershaw pitched just 121 innings while battling various injuries, easily his fewest total frames in a full season since his rookie year.

Being the Dodgers, they simply reloaded again (re-reloaded? I’ll allow it this time). Against all odds, 41-year-old Albert Pujols found new life in Chavez Ravine. By trading for Scherzer and Trea Turner, L.A. instantly reasserted themselves as World Series favorites. And then they went and added Cole Hamels, who — actually, you know what, let’s leave it at that. Point being, they still won 106 games, which tied a franchise record they set in 2019.

There’s just one problem, and it’s the reason they’re in this article. The San Francisco Giants‘ miracle season derailed the Dodgers juggernaut streak of eight consecutive NL West crowns, landing them in that most precarious of predicaments, the Wild Card Game. In order to make another run at the glory this year, they first must get past those devilin’ Cardinals on Wednesday night. No sweat, right?

 

Potential Breakout Star of the Game

It really is tempting to say, Pujols, given the obvious storylines. Of course, that would be lazy and probably cheating. If the game is close, I can absolutely see someone like Beaty or McKinney coming out of nowhere with a clutch hit because that’s just how the Dodgers roll. But give me AJ Pollock: he’s swinging a hot bat after posting a bonkers .370/.478/.926 line in the month of September, with nearly as many homers (4) as strikeouts (5). Lifetime against Wainwright, Pollock is 3-8 with a double and a pair of RBIs. I like the matchup.

 

If the Dodgers win, it’s because…

It could be because Max Scherzer is unhittable. It could be because their lineup is as deep as any you’ll find, even without Muncy. It could be because the Cardinals finally run out of gas after the frantic adrenaline surge that was their September run. But most likely, if the Dodgers win, it will be quite simply because they are a vastly, dramatically, pants-poopingly superior team from top to bottom. Does that guarantee a win? Not at all. But, you know, it doesn’t hurt.

 

Prediction

The Cardinals pulling off the upset of the 106-win defending champs on Tuesday night would be one of the most improbable, bizarre, and downright Cardinal-esque moments in recent baseball history. And it could absolutely happen. As someone who vividly and traumatically remembers what they did to the 2012 Braves in the “infield fly game” (when Atlanta held a six-game edge in the standings going in), I know better than to dismiss the devil magic. That said, I can’t not pick the Dodgers. In one game, I want Mad Max vs. anyone. Dodgers win, 5-1.

– Wynn McDonald

 

St. Louis Cardinals (90-72)

 

Offense

 

2021 is the first time since 2004 that the Cardinals have boasted three 30+ home run hitters in the same lineup. Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, and Tyler O’Neill are the new “MV3” replacing Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen. There is no doubt about it; all three need to contribute and get something off of Max Scherzer if the Cardinals are to have any chance of outperforming this elite Dodgers lineup. The lower half of the lineup looks extremely vulnerable to Scherzer at his best, and that could prove decisive.

The Cardinals have got this far without a standout left-handed hitter, but again that spells trouble against Scherzer, who is so good against righties with his arsenal.

In terms of the lineup, there is a scenario where manager Mike Shildt goes with Paul DeJong in place of Edmundo Sosa at shortstop, given the former’s relatively successful past against Scherzer and his invaluable postseason experience.

 

Rotation

The Cardinals’ rotation is probably the weakest of the five National League teams in the playoffs, but they have the ageless, 40-year old magician Adam Wainwright to spearhead this one-game winner-takes-all matchup. That is quite a weapon. Wainwright’s ability to pitch to soft contact is unparalleled, and the best defense in baseball is around him. You’ve seen “For Love Of The Game,” right? He is the perfect solution to the Dodgers hitting prowess, and he is hoping the defense can handle the speed threat for him. He does not flinch in the big games, either—a career 2.89 ERA in the postseason tells us that.

The problem for the Cardinals has largely been their walks. Cardinal pitchers have walked more batters than any other team. The main culprits here are Jon Lester and Kwang Hyun Kim (who was relegated to the bullpen a little while ago). Neither will probably feature in this one, and it is hard to really believe anyone is a better option than the bullpen arms if things get dicey early on. The plan will be to allow Wainwright to pitch as long as possible. Dakota Hudson has impressed in his limited action since returning from Tommy John surgery, but that call would be a big gamble.

 

Bullpen

The big question is whether ace Jack Flaherty will be available to pitch out of the bullpen after multiple stints on the injured list. Flaherty pitched a perfect 1-2-3 inning with a pair of strikeouts in an inning of relief on Sunday and finished with a solid 3.22 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 85 strikeouts in 78 1/3 innings through the regular season. He only pitched 2 1/3 innings since returning from the injured list on September 23rd, however, giving up two runs on three hits. He is the perfect mid-innings option if Wainright runs into trouble, however. A couple of strong innings to set up Giovanny Gallegos in the final two innings would be ideal.

Walks have been an issue here too. Through injury, attrition, and shifting bullpen roles, the Cardinals have given fewer high leverage innings to the most walk-susceptible among their pitching staff, mainly Alex Reyes, Kodi Whitley, and Genesis Cabrera. This means, if they do come into trouble early, Gallegos is likely to be called upon to put out a fire. Luis Garcia has performed admirably in the setup role and could play a key role if Gallegos is used early. Reyes might be too naive against the power hitters the Dodgers possess.

 

How They Got Here

 

The Streak, of course! From September 11th to September 28th, the Cardinals didn’t lose a single game. They went on an astonishing 17-game winning streak to catapult themselves into postseason contention in the NL Central. And it was all about the offense. Prior to the streak, the Cardinals slugged .396, which was good enough for the eighth-lowest in all of baseball. During the streak, however, they were the highest slugging percentage team in baseball with .530. The homers have been flying—Tyler O’Neill (7), Paul Goldschmidt (7), and Nolan Arenado (5) combined for 16 blasts in that span. Collectively, they have also been brilliant. They bumped their season, hitting from the tune of 6% below league average by wRC+ to a whopping 23% above league average during the streak.

Let’s not overlook the defense, however. They lead all of baseball in Outs Above Average (OAA). The core strength is up the middle, where the way is shut thanks to Tommy Edman at second base (14 OAA), Harrison Bader in center field (14 OAA), and breakout shortstop Edmundo Sosa (6 OAA). Throw in Nolan Arenado (9 OAA) at third and Paul Goldschmidt (5 OAA)  at first, and it’s easy to see why the Cardinals are the best defensive team in baseball.

 

Potential Breakout Star Of The Game

 

Tyler O’Neill took out the award for National League player of the month for September. The fourth-year Canadian outfielder put up some eye-popping numbers, hitting .328/.377/.731 with 13 homers, 30 RBIs, 31 runs scored, and a 1.108 OPS. O’Neill led the National League in home runs, RBI, runs scored, and slugging percentage. He was also the Major League leader or co-leader in all of those categories from September to the end of the season. I am feeling Randy Arozarena vibes!

 

If The Cardinals Win, It’s Because…

 

Adam Wainwright is a gun! The 40-year old needs to completely out-think this dangerous Dodgers lineup that has smart hitters all the way through the lineup. Wainwright is more crafty than dominant, and that could be the key. He has played in nine postseasons, and that experience is invaluable.

 

Prediction

 

Wainwright and Scherzer battle it out for seven innings, depart, and then all hell breaks loose. Cardinals for a big upset! Cardinals win 4-3.

– Benjamin Haller

Photo by: hollywoodsign.org adapted by Shawn Palmer (@SPDesigns__ on Instagram)

Wynn McDonald

Born a Kentuckian, much like Dan Uggla. Braves fan by choice, unlike Dan Uggla. I enjoy long walks on the Brandon Beachy. @twynstagram

One response to “NL Wild Card Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals”

  1. theKraken says:

    It is absurd that LAD has a play-in game. They have been the wire-to-wire front runner and defending champ all season long. This wild card format is just another misstep in a long line of extremely stupid decisions made by MLB over the past decade. I find MLB to be nearly intolerable at this point. Brought to you by the same idiots that start extra innings with a runner on second, mound visit limits and walks without nay pitches being thrown. This all sounds like some obscure baseball league for little kids.

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