Playoff Preview: Nationals vs. Cardinals
We’re inching closer to the World Series, and the NLCS features exactly who everyone thought it would: the Washington Nationals and the St. Louis Cardinals. Both teams have players performing and creating moments that may soon have us asking if we’re dealing with something bigger than baseball here—something that won’t be able to stop until the end of a parade route in a few weeks. The Nationals are seeking to further distance themselves from past playoff demons, while the Cardinals aim to reach the World Series for the first time since 2013.
Game 1: Friday, Oct. 11, in St. Louis, 8:08 PM EDT
Game 2: Saturday, Oct. 12, in St. Louis, 1:00 PM EDT
Game 3: Monday, Oct. 14, in Washington, D.C., Time TBD
Game 4: Tuesday, Oct. 15, in Washington, D.C., Time TBD
Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday, Oct. 16, in Washington, D.C., Time TBD
Game 6 (if necessary): Friday, Oct. 18, in St. Louis, Time TBD
Game 7 (if necessary): Saturday, Oct. 19, in St. Louis, Time TBD
All games will be aired on TBS.
The Nationals and Cardinals played each other seven times during the regular season, a four-game set in Washington that spanned the end of April and start of May and a three-game series in St. Louis in September. The Cardinals took the series by going 5-2 and outscoring the Nationals 27-16.
The Nationals entered October as one of the hottest teams in baseball by going 46-27 in the second half. So far, and for the first time in their existence, they’ve been able to ride that regular-season success and power themselves beyond the first round of the playoffs. They wrestled the Brewers through the Wild Card Game, where the highlight was a shocking eighth-inning rally against Josh Hader that was instigated by the monstrously talented Juan Soto. Then they stunned the Dodgers in five games in the NLDS. The highlight of the series came when Howie Kendrick continued his career year at the improbable age of 36 by socking a go-ahead grand slam in extra innings off Joe Kelly. These are the kinds of moments that quickly wash away the foul, lingering taste of near-annual postseason disappointment.
Game 1’s likely starter, Aníbal Sánchez, may be another unlikely postseason hero in the vein of Kendrick; the kind for whom Las Vegas creates a silly prop bet that makes you laugh and put a fiver on just in case. After providing a steady presence throughout the year behind the three-headed monster of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, Sánchez kept the pace by lulling the Dodgers to sleep with off-speed offerings in the divisional series. His performance was like watching an expert nanny put a toddler down for a nap and highlights just how many ways Nationals starters can shut down an opponent. That said, manager Dave Martinez will likely have to deploy them more traditionally in this seven-game set than the five-game division series allowed, when all three of their big guns came on in relief at various points.
If that’s the case, the baseball world will officially be on the lookout for Washington’s downright-bad bullpen. In his NLDS preview, Myles Nelson emphasized how they finished the year almost dead last in bullpen losses and kept company with the dregs of the league. Against the Dodgers, they only combined for 13 innings, or as many as Scherzer and two fewer than Strasburg. In those brief appearances, they gave up five homers and seven walks while striking out 15. It created a feast-or-famine reality that may not be sustainable over a longer series against a team like St. Louis, which appears to be wielding some sort of Wiccan magic.
And so naturally, that may pressure the core Washington hitters late in the game. Anthony Rendon will need to continue being an all-around force. Soto’s two-strike approach should be monitored—not just because he actually has one and it’s fun, but also because it could define a game. Trea Turner‘s speed might need to force a defender into a mistake, even though the Cardinals have clamped down on run prevention. Ryan Zimmerman will need to keep delivering in his twilight. It’s going to come down to who creates the fewest disadvantages for themselves.
St. Louis Cardinals
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The Cardinals can never be counted out of a postseason series. They somehow find this magic to keep it going. Still, the Nationals could be a problem. Their rotation is tough to beat, and the St. Louis lineup tends to go flat sometimes. That’s a no-go.
Based purely on the fact that the Cardinals will need to overcome the Strasburg-Corbin-Scherzer hump, Game 1 is extremely important. Sanchez is going for the Nationals and that is winnable—nay, a must win—for St. Louis. The rest is very up in the air. Adam Wainwright is St. Louis’ probable starter for Game 2, and if he can turn out another masterful performance, then things could get interesting. But, Game 1 is the real must-win.
In a seven-game series, the Nationals and their fans are probably betting on three wins from their three guys. If Miles Mikolas can beat Sanchez, then Wainwright will be up against one-third of the All-Star squad. Then, presumably, Jack Flaherty pitches, and maybe Dakota Hudson is in that mix as well to oppose some of baseball’s best starters. At face value, the Nationals have the advantage, but not by as much as you’d think.
So, how can the Cardinals beat the three-headed dragon? Their pitching needs to be strong, and their bullpen needs to be stronger. Carlos Martinez needs to close out those games. In reality, the Nationals have not been this far before, and some of the Cardinals have. Mainly, the pitching of the Nationals is relatively inexperienced in the LCS. While Washington’s arms are uber-talented, if the Cardinals can jump on them early and get to the bullpen, things look a lot better.
Everything here besides FIP paints a rosier picture for the Nationals than the Cardinals. Washington has demonstrated a better starting staff, a stronger ability to generate whiffs while limiting free passes, a better ability to drive the ball, and an overall tougher offense. But let’s remember that this is October—that things are weird here like the Beyond section of Bed Bath & Beyond. A 65 mph blooper off someone’s bat could turn the tide again in no time.
Things to Watch
- Will Dave Martinez be able to continue getting away with tenuous decisions again? Moves like letting Strasburg bat with runners on first and second in the middle of a critical game may be as fragile as they come.
- What role will breaking balls play for the vaunted Nationals starting staff? Breakers have been up league-wide throughout he regular season and the postseason. St. Louis has struggled against them.
- Run support, run support, run support. The Cardinals may have scored 13 runs in Game 5 against the Braves, but they can’t have another stretch where they score only one run over two games, like they did in Games 2 and 3.
- The Cardinals bullpen needs to show up. This might be an obvious thing, but the relievers need to finish what the rotation starts. For the most part, they do. However, Carlos Martinez had a couple of bad outings along the way.
Tim Jackson: Nationals in six games. Someone’s luck is going to run out this round. Washington has more pitching depth despite its bad bullpen, and I see the Nats hitters digging into two out of three of Mikolas, Wainwright, and Hudson.
Trevor Hooth: This is tough. I really don’t know which way to lean, but I am confident whichever team wins will do so in Game 6. My mind is saying the Nationals, but there’s always that part of me that never bets against St. Louis in the playoffs. So, the Trevor Hooth official prediction (keeping in mind Cardinals in five is the only thing I’ve gotten correct so far) is Cardinals in six.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@FreshMeatComm on Twitter)