By Ryan Witt
Today the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals begin their five-game National League Division Series in pursuit of World Series championship. The Cardinals are coming off a controversial win in a one-game playoff against the Atlanta Braves. The Nationals are more rested, and anxious to get their first playoff win since 1981, when the Nationals were called the Expos and located in Montreal. Below is a complete preview of the game.
Washington Nationals: (98-64), (48-33) on the road
St. Louis Cardinals: (88-74), (50-31) at home
The Starting Pitchers
Adam Wainwright: 14-13, 198.2 IP, 184 K, 52 BB, 3.94 ERA
Analysis: Wainwright’s velocity has been a tick down all year after undergoing Tommy-John surgery last year. He still features what can be a dominant curveball and exceptional control. Wainwright’s improved command within the strike zone helped him to improve over the second half of the season. Wainwright has a slightly better ERA at home (3.73) compared to on the road. Wainwright also boasts a better xFIP (3.23) than his ERA (3.94), which suggests bad defense and bad luck have played into his higher ERA this year. Wainwright had a terrible start against the Nationals in late August, giving up 6 ER in just 2.2 IP. However, Wainwright recovered on September 28, throwing 6 IP against the Nationals and yielding just 1 ER.
Gio Gonzalez: 21-8, 199.1 IP, 207 K, 79 BB, 2.89 ERA
Analysis: Gonzalez was one of the most dominant pitchers in the National League after being acquired by the Nationals this year. Like Wainwright, Gonzalez mostly works with a very good fastball and a exceptional curveball. Gonzalez’s velocity is a tick better than Wainwright’s, sitting anywhere from 92-94 MPH. Gonzalez ERA is worse on the road (3.31) than at home (2.38). Gonzalez was dominant toward the end of the season, posting a 1.74 ERA in 31 IP in September and October. Gonzalez only pitched one game against the Cardinals this season, which was a shutout on August 31.
Matchup Advantage: Gonzalez consistently has been the better pitcher throughout the year. However, Wainwright does pitch better at home and has proven himself as a big post-season pitcher in the past. The Nationals still win the starting pitching matchup, but it is not a big advantage by any means.
Cardinals Typical Starters
Jon Jay – CF
Carlos Beltran – RF
Matt Holliday – LF
Allen Craig – 1B
Yadier Molina – C
David Freese – 3B
Daniel Descalso – 2B
Pete Kozma – SS
Analysis: The Cardinals’ offense has been second to only the Brewers this year, scoring a total of 765 runs. The Cardinals’ on-base-percentage (.338) ranks first in Major League Baseball. Their slugging-percentage (.413) ranks fourth in the National League behind the Nationals, Rockies, and Brewers. The Cardinals’ offense struggled through much of the second half of the season, but has found a bit of resurgence recently, as the Nationals personally witnessed when the Cardinals scored 26 runs in a three-game series against them in late August.
Nationals Typical Starters
Jayson Werth – RF
Bryce Harper – CF
Ryan Zimmerman – 3B
Adam LaRoche – 1B
Michael Morse – LF
Ian Desmond – SS
Danny Espinosa – 2B
Kurt Suzuki – C
Analysis: The Nationals scored slightly less runs (731) than the Cardinals, but their OBP (.322) ranks twelfth in the Majors. The strength of the offense comes in the form of power, with a team SLUG (.428) that ranks sixth in the Majors. The National offense was dominant against the Cardinals pitchers in a late-August/early-September matchup, scoring 31 runs in four games. In the most recent late-September matchup the offense fared worse, scoring 12 runs in three games.
Matchup Advantage: The Cardinals have a slight offensive advantage given their higher runs scored and OBP. However, like the pitching matchup, the Cardinals’ advantage on offense is not a large one.
Cardinals’ Analysis: The Cardinals’ bullpen struggled in the first half of the season, and that is reflected in their bullpen ERA (3.90) that ranks 20th in Major League Baseball. Still, the bullpen improved greatly toward the end of the season with additions of Edward Mujica (3.03 ERA) and Trevor Rosenthal (2.78 ERA). Over the last 30 days of the season the Cardinals bullpen had a 3.26 ERA. In the eighth and ninth innings the Cardinals typically rely upon Mitchell Boggs (2.21) and Jason Motte (2.75 ERA, 42 Saves) who have both had outstanding seasons.
Nationals’ Analysis: The bullpen is a real strength of the National with a 3.23 ERA that ranks seventh in Major League Baseball. The Nationals bullpen was even better over the last 30 days with a 2.85 ERA. In the eighth and ninth innings the Nationals typically rely upon Tyler Clippard (3.72 ERA, 32 Saves) and Drew Storen (2.37 ERA, 4 Saves). Both are very capable closers, but Storen was used as the closer towards the end of the season.
Matchup Advantage: The Nationals have the better bullpen, but as mentioned above the Cardinals’ bullpen has improved over the season.
Both teams are sub-par defensively. The Cardinals’ had an ultimate-zone-rating (UZR) of -29.8 throughout the season, which ranks 29th in Major League Baseball. The Nationals are slightly better with UZR of -14.3, which ranks 24th in the Majors.
Matchup Advantage: The defense can best be described as a tie. Ryan Zimmerman would normally put the Nationals on top defensively but he has struggled with his throws recently due to a shoulder issue. The Nationals are better at a number of other positions, but the Cardinals have the best defensively player on both teams in Yadier Molina.
Prediction: These two teams are very evenly matched, and the game could best be described as a pick-em. The Nationals were the better team in the regular season, and win the most matchups listed above. However, the Cardinals are playing at home and are coming into the series pitching and hitting well. The Cardinals win 3-2.
Ryan Witt is a freelance writer covering all things St. Louis Cardinals. His work can be found on Examiner.com.