It doesn't get much better than this: Two of the most storied franchises in Major League Baseball each turning to a veteran ace in a winner-take-all showdown at one of the most celebrated venues in the sport.
And that's exactly what's in store when Max Scherzer and the Dodgers host Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals in the NL Wild Card Game Wednesday at Dodger Stadium.
Though the Dodgers (106-56) may have won 16 more games than the Cardinals (90-72) during the regular season, no team was as hot down the stretch as St. Louis. And now it all comes down to one game to determine which club earns the right to advance to the NL Division Series to face the 107-win Giants.
Obviously, anything can happen in the postseason -- especially in a one-game winner-take-all battle -- but let's take a crack at breaking down the Cardinals-Dodgers matchup position by position.
It's hard to pick against a veteran catcher with as many accolades as Yadier Molina. After all, the 39-year-old Cardinals legend is a 10-time All-Star, nine-time Gold Glove Award winner and two-time World Series champion during his 18-year career -- and his familiarity with Wainwright can't be overlooked on the biggest stage. But Molina also posted just a .667 OPS this season (and a .662 mark in the abbreviated 2020 campaign).
Will Smith, on the other hand, connected for 25 homers and posted an .860 OPS -- and the Dodgers will be looking to him to help offset the potential absence of Max Muncy in the middle of the lineup. Though the 26-year-old Smith isn't nearly as postseason-tested as Molina, he did have a five-hit game in the Dodgers' NLDS clincher last year before adding a home run in both the NL Championship Series and World Series. Nobody will question you if you prefer Molina's experience, but we'll give Smith the edge for his sizable offensive advantage this season.
This would have been one of the toughest calls to make prior to Muncy leaving Sunday's regular-season finale with a left elbow injury. Now, with Muncy "very unlikely" to play on Wednesday, the Dodgers' first-base job likely falls to Cody Bellinger, who hit .165 with just 10 home runs and a .542 OPS this season -- barely more than half of his 1.035 OPS from his 2019 NL MVP Award-winning season. It's also a significant drop from Muncy, who hit 36 home runs and was an NL MVP candidate for much of the season before cooling off a bit in the second half.
Goldschmidt, meanwhile, took the opposite approach. After slashing .265/.335/.432 (.767 OPS) in the first half, he's been one of the game's hottest hitters since the All-Star break, posting a .330/.402/.618 (1.020 OPS) slash line with 18 home runs in 70 games.
Tommy Edman has proven he can make things happen atop the Cardinals' lineup, particularly with his speed. The 26-year-old racked up 30 stolen bases this season, all while being a consistent presence for St. Louis -- as evidenced by his NL-leading 641 at-bats over 159 games.
But the nod here has to go to Trea Turner. Acquired from the Nationals -- alongside Scherzer -- at the Trade Deadline, Turner has been unstoppable since arriving in Los Angeles. He finished the regular season hitting an MLB-leading .328, including posting a .338 mark with a .950 OPS in 52 games with the Dodgers. Turner also paced the NL with 32 stolen bases and hit not one, but two grand slams on the season's final weekend.
It's hard to find a better double-play combination than Turner and Corey Seager right now. While Turner was blistering his way to a batting title, all Seager did was hit .335 with a 1.009 OPS and 12 home runs in 58 games after returning from the 60-day injured list on July 30. Seager missed two and a half months after fracturing his right hand in a May 15 game against the Marlins, but he's done nothing but hit since rejoining the lineup two months ago.
Edmundo Sosa emerged as a reliable everyday option this season, slashing .271/.346/.389 over 113 games. The versatile 25-year-old infielder also played above-average defense up the middle, all while making appearances at shortstop, second base and third base -- and even one in center field.
Justin Turner had a phenomenal year for the Dodgers, posting an .832 OPS and matching a career high with 27 home runs (the third time he's clubbed 27 homers). The 13-year veteran has also had plenty of big postseason moments with the Dodgers, including earning the 2017 NLCS MVP Award.
As for the Cardinals, Nolan Arenado has had a bit of an up-and-down debut season with St. Louis -- but he remains one of the most dynamic players on both sides of the ball. His .807 OPS is actually 25 points lower than Turner's mark, but Arenado did hit 34 homers this season and he remains one of the most prolific defensive players in the Majors.
AJ Pollock has quietly been one of the most dangerous hitters in the league over the last three months. Though often overshadowed by the other names in the Dodgers' potent lineup, Pollock hit .345 with a 1.039 OPS over the final 57 games of the regular season dating to July 7. He also had 13 homers and 40 RBIs during that stretch, which works out to a pace of 37 home runs and 114 RBIs over a 162-game span.
Thus, this one was actually a lot closer than it may seem on the surface -- but Tyler O'Neill's breakout season for the Cardinals was just too much to ignore. After flashing Gold Glove defense in the abbreviated 2020 campaign, O'Neill finally put it all together in '21. The 26-year-old outfielder slashed .286/.352/.560 (.912 OPS) with 34 home runs and 15 stolen bases, all while continuing to play stellar defense in left field.
Bellinger's struggles led to the Dodgers mixing and matching quite a bit in center field this year, including giving Gavin Lux -- who made just one appearance in center field in the Minors -- six straight starts up the middle from Sept. 23-29. That said, Los Angeles is likely to turn to Chris Taylor, who had 20 homers and 13 stolen bases in 148 games across six positions this season.
Harrison Bader put up similar offensive numbers for the Cardinals (16 homers, nine steals), though he did all that in just 103 games. Bader also has a significant edge defensively, as his 14 outs above average ranked second among all center fielders, trailing only Kansas City's Michael A. Taylor (15).
Dylan Carlson took a major step forward this season following a disappointing performance in his brief big league stint last year. He hit just .200 with a 68 OPS+ over 35 games in the shortened 2020 campaign, but Carlson, who turns 23 later this month, slashed .266/.343/.437 with a 117 OPS+ and 18 homers in 149 games this season.
Of course, the Dodgers have a guy named Mookie Betts patrolling right field. The two-time World Series champ and 2018 AL MVP may not have had his best season (.854 OPS, 23 homers, 10 stolen bases), but he's proven time and again that he can singlehandedly take over an entire series -- and he can do it in any number of ways. Look no further than the 2020 World Series, when Betts had a home run and two stolen bases in Game 1, stole two more bases in Game 3 and provided a big insurance run with a clutch homer late in Los Angeles' World Series-clinching Game 6 win.
Neither Wainwright nor Scherzer is a stranger to pitching in big games, including winner-take-all showdowns. The last time we saw Wainwright take the mound in a do-or-die situation, he allowed just one run en route to a complete-game victory -- though that came in the 2013 NLDS against the Pirates. Scherzer has started four winner-take-all games since Wainwright's gem, including the 2019 NL Wild Card Game and Game 7 of the '19 World Series as a member of the Nationals.
As for this season, both pitchers were in vintage form. The 40-year-old Wainwright went 17-7 with a 3.05 ERA and tied for the MLB lead with three complete games, all while eclipsing the 200-inning mark (206 1/3 innings) for the first time since 2014. Scherzer finished 15-4 with a 2.46 ERA in 30 starts between the Nationals and Dodgers, though he didn't look as sharp down the stretch. The 37-year-old righty went 7-0 with a 0.78 ERA in his first nine starts with Los Angeles before getting tagged for 11 runs (10 earned) over 10 1/3 innings in his last two outings. It's hard to go wrong with either of these veteran aces, but count on Scherzer rediscovering that form from August and early September in this one.
Being a one-game showdown, everything is on the table for these teams when it comes to mapping out the nine innings (or more) from their respective pitching staffs. That said, the Dodgers had one of the best bullpens all season. Los Angeles' 3.12 bullpen ERA ranked second in the Majors, behind only San Francisco's 2.97 -- and well ahead of St. Louis' 3.93. Kenley Jansen was a big part of that, bouncing back from a rocky 2020 postseason by posting a 2.22 ERA and racking up 38 saves over 69 innings.
It's hard to pick against a team that so recently rattled off 17 consecutive wins and is starting a Wainwright-Molina battery eyeing another title run -- but it's even harder to pick against Scherzer. The loss of Muncy is a huge blow for the Dodgers, but there is still plenty of firepower in a lineup that features Betts, Seager and the Turners. The deal that brought Scherzer and Trea Turner to Los Angeles ahead of the Trade Deadline might just be the difference in pushing the Dodgers through to the NLDS.