We’ve arrived at an NLCS few expected entering October. The Cardinals and Nationals will face off for a shot at the World Series starting Friday. St. Louis punched its ticket on Wednesday afternoon, burying the Braves with 10 (!) first-inning runs, and the Nationals' magic carpet ride continued after hitting back-to-back homers off Clayton Kershaw in the 8th and a game-winning grand slam in the 10th to steal Game 5 in L.A.
The Cardinals reached the NLCS via blowout. The Nationals needed a win for the ages. Both teams are now four games from the World Series. Let’s break down the three questions that will swing the series.
Can the Cardinals Crack the Nationals’ Rotation?
Washington should still receive plenty of innings from its three-headed monster atop the rotation after Anibal Sanchez (no slouch in his own right) gets the ball in Game 1 on Friday. Max Scherzer will earn a start in Game 2 and potentially Game 5 or Game 6, giving manager Dave Martinez one final flamethrower to use in relief in a potential Game 7. Stephen Strasburg could make a pair of starts, trotting out in Game 3 with the option for a Game 7 start. Martinez hasn’t been afraid to deploy his starters out of the bullpen, a role that could continue to fall especially on Patrick Corbin. With a shaky pen, riding the rotation each night may be the best way to manufacture 27 outs.
St. Louis will needs its offense to lead the way this series considering its rotational disadvantage. Jack Flaherty won’t be ready until likely Game 3, and the rest of the Cardinals’ crew is prone to short outings. Adam Wainwright could be great or could look like a 38-year-old pitcher. Miles Mikolas’s home run woes may be exacerbated against the Nationals’ high-octane attack. The Cardinals will need to find a way to beat Scherzer or Strasburg to win the pennant.
Will St. Louis Rely on Small Ball?
Nobody will confuse the Cardinals with the Yankees after St. Louis finished 2019 No. 23 in baseball in slugging and No. 24 in homers. Just one Redbird slugged .500 or better in 2019 (Tommy Edman). No player crossed the 100-RBI threshold. The Cardinals find ways to generate runs as if Tony La Russa were still the team’s manager.
They thrive on situational hitting. The Cardinals beat Atlanta in extra innings in Game 4 not with a homer, but a Yadier Molina sac fly. St. Louis pounced on the Braves with 10 runs in the first inning on Wednesday without hitting a home run. What's more, manager Mike Shildt called for a Kolten Wong bunt after a leadoff walk from Dexter Fowler to play for one first-inning run. Nine more came in tow.
St. Louis is active on the base paths, tied with the Nationals, oddly enough, for most steals in the NL. The Cardinals appear immune to the three-true-outcome era. Small ball may be old fashioned at this point, but it could catapult St. Louis to the Fall Classic.
Will Washington’s Bullpen Blow Up?
Dave Martinez would probably prefer not to rely so heavily on his starting staff in relief situations, but what other reliable options does he really have? Washington’s bullpen was abysmal in the regular season. The unit finished with the worst ERA ever for a playoff team at 5.66. The Dodgers were the lone NL team to blow more saves than Washington. Only Colorado, Detroit and Baltimore’s bullpens allowed a higher opponent OPS. Martinez may not have a single trustworthy bullpen arm, and that includes closer Sean Doolitle.
St. Louis provides a sharp contrast on the back end. Shildt can lean on two-time All-Star Carlos Martinez and 14-year veteran Andrew Miller. St. Louis doesn’t have a truly dominant bullpen weapon a la Aroldis Chapman, though Shildt has plenty of options at his disposal to mix-and-match against Washington. Opponents slugged just .365 against the Cardinals’ bullpen this season with a .670 OPS, both the lowest marks in baseball. Shildt should be able to close the final few innings with far less stress than Martinez.