ST. LOUIS — Washington was 4-3 against the St. Louis Cardinals in the regular season, and the teams' best-of-five National League Division Series could be just as close.
A breakdown of the Cardinals and Nats as they prepare for the series opener at 2:07 p.m. Sunday at Busch Stadium:
Adam Wainwright (14-13), Jaime Garcia (7-7), Chris Carpenter (0-2) and Kyle Lohse (16-3) are set for the first four games, and it's hard to argue with that mix, even though it excludes Lance Lynn (18-7) and the injured Jake Westbrook (13-11). Wainwright is well-rested for his Game 1 assignment, and Garcia is 4-2 with a 2.82 ERA at home. The Nationals will with Cy Young Award candidate Gio Gonzalez (21-8), Jordan Zimmermann (12-8), former Cardinal Edwin Jackson (10-11) and Ross Detwiler (10-8). That's solid, but not nearly as impressive as it would be if Stephen Strasburg (15-6) was in the mix. But Strasburg was shut down in September and will not return until 2013. Edge: Cardinals.
Both teams have power closers. Jason Motte had 42 saves and 86 strikeouts in 72 innings for the Cardinals; Tyler Clippard had 32 saves and 84 strikeouts in 72 2/3 innings for the Nationals. The Nationals have quality, workhorse relievers in Craig Stammen, Ryan Mattheus, Sean Burnett, Mike Gonzalez and Drew Storen. The Cardinals' late-inning pen has been a strong suit since Edward Mujica was acquired from Florida to take over seventh-inning duties ahead of Mitchell Boggs in the eighth and Motte in the ninth. Left-handed relief has been shaky, but the Cardinals have fortified themselves in the middle innings with Lynn and rookie Joe Kelly. Edge: Cardinals.
The Cardinals ranked second in the NL with 765 runs and a .271 average, and they were first in on-base percentage. Catcher Yadier Molina had a career year with .315 average, 22 home runs and 76 RBIs. First baseman Allen Craig (.307-22-92), right fielder Carlos Beltran (.269-32-97), left fielder Matt Holliday (.296, 27-102) and third baseman David Freese (.293-20-79) always are dangerous, and center fielder Jon Jay (.305-4-40) has been effective at the top of the order. Washington ranked second in the NL with 194 homers, led by first baseman Adam LaRoche (33), shortstop Ian Desmond (25), third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (25) and center fielder Bryce Harper (22), the heralded rookie. But the Nationals struck out 1,325 times, the third-highest total in the league. Among playoff teams, only Oakland struck out more. Second baseman Danny Espinosa (189), LaRoche (138), Harper (120), Zimmerman (116) and Desmond (113) all fanned more than 100 times, and left fielder Michael Morse was close with 97 in just 430 at-bats. Edge: Cardinals.
Molina is the best defensive catcher in the game, and he should be able to shut down the Nationals' average running game. Jay has been spectacular in center, and Beltran owns perhaps the strongest and most accurate arm of all right fielders. Second baseman Daniel Descalso has tremendous range and good hands. Holliday is the team's worst defender. Zimmerman, Harper, Desmond and right fielder Jayson Werth are plus defenders. Morse is below average and will be replaced by Roger Bernadina in the late innings. Edge: Nationals.
Backup catcher Jesus Flores, infielders Steve Lombardozzi and Chad Tracy and outfielders Bernadina and Tyler Moore give Washington a quality group of role players. The Nationals batted .288 in pinch-hitting situations (61-for-212). The Cardinals' best player off the bench has been versatile rookie Matt Carpenter, with help from infielder/outfielder Skip Schumaker, outfielder Shane Robinson and catcher Tony Cruz. St. Louis pinch-hitters batted just .190 (46-for-242). Edge: Nationals.
Washington's Davey Johnson is a candidate for NL Manager of the Year. At 69 years old, he's been around the block, has loads of postseason experience and is one of the best tactical managers in baseball. Mike Matheny is in his first season with the Cardinals, and he has kept the team on task despite injuries and extended stretches of underachieving play. Edge: Nationals.
The Cardinals again seem to be riding a wave of momentum. They did enough to get into the postseason, then defeated Atlanta in the pressure-packed wild-card game Friday. And after their experience of last season when they won their 11th World Championship after twice being down to their final srike, confidence is a major factor on the Cardinals' side. The Nationals (98-64) have enjoyed a tremendous season, finishing as the top seed in the NL. But most of their players have no postseason experience, and Jackson is the only member of the rotation who has pitched in a playoff game. How will the Nationals handle the stress of the postseason? Edge: Cardinals.
David Wilhelm's pick: Cardinals in five.
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2665.