It seems the Nationals are the the favorites against the Cardinals in their NLDS playoff match-up.
I guess that makes sense because Washington does have the best record in the National League. It also makes sense because I can't remember the Cardinals ever being favored in a play-off series since 2004 when they were picked to beat the Red Sox in the World Series. And we all know how well that went.
The Nationals are a tough team, for sure. But I wouldn't exactly pack away all of your Cardinals gear for the winter just yet. The Nationals are a team a lot like the Braves. They're long on young talent -- but extremely short on playoff experience. And they're second-best pitcher has been shut down for the season which leaves DC with only one starter, Gio Gonzalez, with more than 12 wins for the recently completed season.
Washington has a strong bullpen. But the Cardinals will bolster their bullpen with starting pitcher Lance Lynn who was very effective in a middle to late innings stopper role during the Birds' 2011 World Series run.
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When it comes to the starting eight, the Nationals don't hit for much average. The only regular who hit .300 was outfielder Jayson Werth who hit .300 right on the button. But his action was limited by injuries and he managed to play in only 81 games with five homers and 31 RBIs. Six of the Nats' eight starters hit 17 homers or better, however, led by Adam LaRoche. The Washington line-up is righthanded heavy with Bryce Harper and LaRoche being the only full time lefties and second sacker Danny Espinosa a switch hitter.
That's good news for the Cardinals who are extremely weak from the left side of the bullpen.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, had three guys who hit better than .300 and five guys of the starting eight who hit .293 or better. Super sub Matt Carpenter chipped in a .294 batting average with time played at the infield -- and occasionally the outfield -- corners. For the first time in franchise history, the Redbirds had five players -- Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- who hit more than 20 home runs.
On paper, the Nationals and Cardinals look very similar. They play a power game for offense and count on strong starting pitching a great deal. Where they differ is likely between the ears.
While I mentioned that the Nats don't have much post season experience at all, don't discount the fact that all St. Louis starters except for Carlos Beltran and rookie Peter Kozma have a World Series ring. And those rings weren't gifts. They all played a huge part of the Cardinals' previous success. I'm not just talking about David Freese and his legendary homer and triple in game six of the 2011 World Series.
Molina is the glue that holds together the pitching staff and holds the defense together with two World Series under his belt as a primary catcher. First baseman Allen Craig collected the game-winning hit in two World Series games last year. Second baseman Descalso was a key defensive replacement and he and Jon Jay both got clutch hits in game six as well. Matt Holliday hit .435 in the NLCS last year to help the Birds even make it to the Fall Classic.
The big difference between this year and last year is that ace Chris Carpenter probably can't be counted on to carry the team on his pitching shoulder this year with only three starts under his belt in 2012. But he's a big addition to the pitching staff that makes the Cardinals a very deep and dangerous foe.
If the starting pitching holds things together and Carlos Beltran continues to show signs of life, I like the Cardinals chances against the Nationals.
One of the reasons that national level prognosticators are into the Nationals is that they don't look beyond the stat sheet and basically don't know what's going on with the Cardinals.
For example, one report I read said that the Braves would beat the Cardinals and then the Nationals would beat the Braves because 1) The Cardinals have nice pitching and a good offense, but they lost Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman is hurt and there is no way they can overcome that. Nevermind that the Cardinals scored more runs in 2012 than they did WITH Pujols in 2011 and that Craig outhit Pujols by 22 points and he had about 10 less RBIs than Pujols even though he missed six early weeks in the season because of his winter knee surgery.
Also, the writer astutely points out, the Nationals have two of the best pitchers in baseball in Geo Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg. Nevermind that the latter is out for the post-season.
Something that could benefit the Cardinals greatly is that the new playoff format puts the first two games of the NLDS in St. Louis. If the Redbirds could win both of the games in St. Louis, they'll have the Nationals on the Ropes going back to DC in need of one win in three tries. Even if they split in St. Louis, they Cardinals would only need to win two out of three in Washington to Advance. That's a much better chance than a one-game contest on the road.