NLDS Breakdown: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Washington Nationals
The Cardinals are fresh off of a high-drama Wild Card victory over the Braves in MLB’s first ever Wild Card playoff game. They will host the top-seeded Nationals for the first two games of the five-game (if necessary) Division Series. Here is how the matchup shakes down on paper.
The Cardinals had the best offense in the National League for much of the 2012 season. Their powerful offense is led by Molina, Holliday, Craig, and Freese who are having some of the best years of their careers. Also, with the emergence of Pete Kozma at shortstop, they seem to have filled the gap left by Rafael Furcal’s injury. The Nationals offense has been good but not great. They are definitely dangerous, but not as dangerous as the Cardinals.
While the Nationals’ offense has not been their strongpoint, they have the best pitching staff in the National League. Much ado has been made about the Nats shutting down Stephen Strasburg, but Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, and Edwin Jackson are good enough to make this team incredibly dangerous. The Cardinals starting pitching has been really solid as well. The combo of Lohse, Wainwright, Carpenter, and Garcia will make this team very hard to beat as well. I am giving a very slight advantage to the Cardinals because they go with Wainwright and Carpenter in games one and two at home in St. Louis. That makes the Cards very tough.
Tyler Clippard’s struggles as of late might be a blessing in disguise for the Nationals. The former closer is now a setup man for Drew Storen, an accomplished closer in his own right. This makes the eighth and ninth innings very hard for a team to traverse. The Cardinals bullpen has struggled for much of the year, but the Mujica/Boggs/Motte seventh-ninth has been fairly solid. Still, as a whole, the Nationals have a better bullpen.
Mike Matheny has been impressive in his first year at the helm of the Cardinals, but Davey Johnson is a manager with a lot of experience. Rookie managers are prone to making mental mistakes because of their lack of experience. Matheny is no exception. Johnson has gotten his team to the number one seed, and he should get a lot of the credit.
The Nationals have very little postseason experience on the roster, and the Cardinals roster still has a lot of players that experienced their World Series run a year ago. Experience does not always win out, but it does help settle the nerves of a player if they have dealt with similar high-intensity situations.
Biggest Storyline: Can the Cardinals repeat as champions?
The 2011 World Series was great, but that was last year. This is a new team, but there are a lot of similar faces. No one has repeated as World Champions since the most recent Yankees dynasty. There is a lot of pressure on the Cardinals, but I feel confident that they will focus on one game at a time.
Key for the Cardinals: Get out to a lead early, and hold it
The Cards need to leverage their ability to put up crooked numbers on the scoreboard in a hurry. Some players struggled this season with RISP, but they have done pretty well as a group. The key will be securing a lead with effective bullpen pitching and favorable relief-pitcher/hitter matchups.
Key for the Nationals: Split in St. Louis
The 2-3 format gives the lower seed the advantage IF they win both games at home (of course). The Nationals will increase their chances of taking the series if they can take one of the games and set themselves up to win two out of three in their home ballpark where they play particularly well. A split would be huge.
Prediction: Cardinals in 4
I think that the Wainwright/Garcia/Carpenter combo in games 1-3 will make the difference. Furthermore, the Cardinals’ incredible offense is even more impressive at Busch Stadium. I would not be surprised if the Cardinals take games one and two to set themselves up with three chances to move on.
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