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NLDS Game 1 preview: Nationals at Cardinals

Nationals at Cardinals

Series: NLDS, Game 1

Time: Sunday, 3:30 p.m. EST

TV: TBS

Starters: Gio Gonzalez (21-8, 2.89 ERA) vs. Adam Wainwright (14-13, 3.94 ERA)

The Nationals kick off their first playoff game in franchise history — not counting their Montreal past — behind a pitcher who put together a Cy Young-caliber season. Gonazlez may not be Stephen Strasburg, but the 26-year-old lefty broke out in his first season with Washington, leading the league in strikeout rate among ERA qualifiers at 9.3 per nine (Strasburg, who fell 2 2/3 innings short of qualifying, was at 11.1), home run rate (0.4 per nine) and wins, while ranking sixth in ERA.

The Cardinals are more effective against lefties (.276/.338/.450) than righties (.270/.338/.410), and thanks to switch-hitter Carlos Beltran, their five top power threats — Allen Craig, David Freese, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina being the others — have the platoon advantage against Gonzalez, but they won't be facing a typical southpaw. Gonzalez offers rare velocity for a lefty; his 94.1 mph average four-seam fastball velocity ranked fifth among major league starters, and sixth in terms of whiffs per swing (23.1 percent). He complements the pitch with a sinker, a curve, and — against righties — a changeup, the latter two of which generate high whiff rates as well. Thanks to improved command, he trimmed his walk rate to 3.4 per nine, down from 4.4 with the A's, and posted a reverse platoon split, holding righties to a .199/.276/.285 line in 644 PA, compared to .231/.307/.353 in 178 PA against lefties. The Cardinals' lone look at him came on Aug. 31, when he shut them out on five hits in Washington, striking out eight.

The defending world champions come in on an emotional high, having beaten the heavily-favored Braves in the NL wild-card game on Friday. Their top six hitters in the order — typically Jon Jay, Beltran, Holliday, Craig, Molina and Freese — can all do significant damage, with Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma the only real places to hide. At 4.72 runs per game on .271/.338/.421 hitting, they ranked second in the league in scoring and batting average, first in OBP and fourth in SLG despite playing half their games in a pitchers' park. The Cardinals don't run much (13th in stolen bases), but manager Mike Matheny does tend to get a little bunt-happy; the team's 40 sacrifice bunts by position players tied for fifth among NL clubs.

In contrast to Gonzalez, who is working his first postseason game, Wainwright is a seasoned playoff veteran, though he missed last year's run due to Tommy John surgery. He struggled early (4.75 ERA through his first 16 starts) but sharpened as the season went on (3.18 ERA over his final 16 starts), with across-the-board improvements in strikeout, walk and home run rates as well as BABIP. For the year, his peripherals (0.7 homers, 2.4 walks and 8.3 strikeouts per nine) were virtually carbon copies of his 2009-2010 seasons, when he placed third and second, respectively, in the NL Cy Young voting; the main difference was a .320 BABIP, 29 points higher than that two-year stretch.

Lacking outstanding velocity, Wainwright complements a two-seamer that averages 90.6 mph with a cutter and a curve — his two swing-and-miss pitches — as well as a changeup that he throws mainly to lefties. He generates a steady supply of groundballs, and his modest platoon is split notable mainly for an increased tendency to walk lefties (.261/.327/.397 against them, compared to .256/.293/.388 against righties). He was roughed up for six runs in 2 2/3 innings opposite Gonzalez on Aug. 31, but recovered to throw six innings of one-run ball against the Nats on Sept. 28.

The Nationals are no slouches offensively, fifth in the league in scoring (4.51 runs per game) on .261/.322 /.428 hitting (fourth, sixth and third in those categories). They're not a very patient bunch, but they have plenty of pop, ranking second in the league in home runs (194) and isolated power (.162) despite Mike Morse, Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth missing substantial amounts of time due to injuries. Though he missed half a season with a broken arm and hit just five homers, Werth (.300/.387/.440) rebounded from a dismal 2011. Upon his return, manager Davey Johnson installed him in the leadoff spot in place of Ian Desmond (.292/.335/.511 with 25 homers), whose power played better further down in the order. Despite being heavily righthanded — Adam LaRoche and Bryce Harper are the lineup's only lefties — the team showed virtually no platoon split (.260/.323/.425 against righties, .265/.320/.435 against lefties).

Washington does have speed — four players, including reserve Roger Bernadina, had least 15 steals and a 75 percent success rate — but nobody's likely to waste outs challenging Molina's arm given his 48 percent caught stealing rate. Nor is Johnson likely to burn outs bunting; the Nats ranked 12th in the league with just 27 position player sacrifices.

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