So how many of you realistically thought this would be our NLCS matchup? Not me, certainly. The Dodgers dropped the NLDS in five after winning 106 games, a stunner few saw coming. The Nationals came into the series hot, but so what? They were the inferior team on paper and after Game 3’s shellacking, it didn’t look like they’d even get the series back to Los Angeles. But in a refreshing twist, this year’s Fall Classic will not take place at Chavez Ravine. The flip side of that is, with the Dodgers out of the way, it may return to a very familiar place in St. Louis’ Busch Stadium. The Nats and Cardinals, each winners of just 93 games (compared to 97 by the Braves and 106 for L.A.) will square off for the right to go to the World Series. For some perspective, the Cardinals have won 11 World Series titles. The Nationals have never even been to one.
Let’s take a little bit of a deeper dive into the NLCS:
The Cardinals strike out a ton and went ice cold for stretches this season. But in true Cards fashion, everything is suddenly clicking in October. This was a team that I felt like was more hot than good all season, yet when push came to shove, Cardinal Magic prevailed over Atlanta Choking. A pathetic effort by the Bravos in Game 5 made St. Louis look like a juggernaut, which it most certainly is not. The Nationals hung tough all series and have averaged just 4.2 runs per game in the postseason, a run below the Cards’ 5.2 (skewed, of course, by their one massive inning in Game 5). Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto parallel the duo of Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna, who have busted loose this October. Where the Cards can separate themselves is team speed, with the likes of Harrison Bader, Tommy Edman, Dexter Fowler, and Kolten Wong all able to wreak havoc on the bases. That gives the Redbirds a slight advantage in this category. Edge: Cardinals.
Well, you know the drill. Strasburg and Scherzer are a stellar duo, which the Cards don’t have, but what about the “other guys?” The Cards’ four-man rotation of Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, and Dakota Hudson may not be as star-studded, but deeper overall because Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez can be enigmas. Flaherty and Strasburg, October stars already, won’t meet until Game 3. Still, Sanchez held his own against the Dodgers before Corbin’s wheels fell off in relief in Game 4. It will be interesting to see if Sanchez can replicate his brilliant Game 1 start in the 2013 ALCS for Detroit. Edge: Even.
Like most things Cardinals, this came out of nowhere. Carlos Martinez wasn’t supposed to be the closer. You figured Andrew Miller would be one of the studs, but he was often a man without a defined role. Jordan Hicks’ 104-mph sinker is on the shelf until well into next year. Giovanny Gallegos felt like a throw-in as part of the Luke Voit deal last summer. But these are the St. Louis Cardinals, who are baseball’s equivalent of the Patriots in at least one sense – it’s almost as if they can outcoach and outsmart teams with lesser talent. And, needless to say, it doesn’t take much for a team to be better in this department than the Nationals. Let’s put it this way: if Fernando Rodney finds his way into a game, this thing is all over and the Cards are World Series-bound (the same could potentially be said about Hunter Strickland). Once again, the Nats will need to ride Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle, and they won’t have the same luxury of using starters out of the ‘pen in a longer series. Unless Tanner Rainey can emerge as a star, the Nats will really need a lot out of their starters. Edge: Cardinals.
This was the primary reason the Cardinals missed the playoffs for three straight seasons despite having winning records each year. Their defense often cost them, and darn well should have cost them in Game 4 against Atlanta. It is much-improved, especially with Goldschmidt manning first base now, but I still give a slight nod to Washington. Edge: Nationals.
Mike Shildt never played professionally. He never even managed professionally until last summer. So, of course, here he is in the NLCS. He has made (mostly) all the right moves, with the possible exception of his intentional walk to Brian McCann in Game 3 of the ALDS. On the flip side, Dave Martinez, Joe Maddon’s right-hand man for the 2016 World Champion Cubs (I’m sure Cards fans still enjoy hearing that), has pushed all the right buttons this postseason. He outmanaged Craig Counsell in the wild card game with the use of his bench and Strasburg in relief. He outmanaged Dave Roberts, who, frankly, once again outmanaged himself. The Nationals have a major monkey off their back, finally winning a playoff series (sorry, the Wild Card game did not count, even though it is considered a “playoff round”). They are playing loose and confident, and have now won three elimination games. Of course, the Cards were also pushed to the brink in winning back-to-back elimination games against the Braves, and the homefield advantage is big. Adam Wainwright in particular will benefit from pitching at Busch, where he carved up the Nats in mid-September. Even if this Nats team feels like one of destiny, the Cardinals just find a way. Edge: Even.
Wow, this one is tough. My heart and head is pulling for the guys wearing the Walgreens logos on their caps. They have a grittiness unparalleled by any recent DC sports team other than the 2018 Capitals, and just dispatched of the 106-win Dodgers, who, it seemed, had everything in their favor. And yet, the Cardinals are like an unshakeable cough. Try to ignore it. Take some lozenges. Go on with your life. And yet, here they are, probably thinking about duplicating Julian Edelman’s “Bet Against Us” shirts that their football counterparts, the Patriots, donned last January. You just can’t pick against this team (as I found out the hard way last round). This will be a great series, because the Nats are, in reality, a better team, but I’d rather go with history and be wrong… not to mention honor my preseason NL pennant winner. Pick: Cardinals in 7.