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NLDS Preview: Cardinals vs. Nationals

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You can’t predict baseball, but you can at least lay out the parameters. So let’s take a look at what the Cardinals and Nationals have in store for us in the National League Division Series.

The Teams

St. Louis Cardinals (88-74) vs. Washington Nationals (98-64)

The Matchups

Game 1 Sunday in St. Louis: Gio Gonzalez vs. Adam Wainwright
Game 2 Monday in St. Louis: Jordan Zimmermann vs. Jaime Garcia
Game 3 Wednesday in Washington, D.C.: Chris Carpenter vs. Edwin Jackson
Game 4 (if necessary) Thursday in Washington, D.C.
Game 5 (if necessary) Friday in Washington, D.C.

Analysis: The Nationals’ postseason rotation would obviously look far more fierce with Stephen Strasburg active, but you already knew that. And these previews are supposed to be informative. Gonzalez, a Cy Young Award candidate in the National League, posted a stellar 2.89 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 32 starts this year for the NL East champions, tallying 207 strikeouts over 199 1/3 innings. But he was almost a full run worse on the road (3.31 ERA) than at home (2.28 ERA) and he has a 4.2 career BB/9. The Cardinals, meanwhile, finished with the highest collective on-base percentage in the major leagues this season.

Beating Gonzalez in Game 1 would put the Cards in a pretty great spot. Game 2 starter Garcia has a 2.48 career ERA at home and matches up well against a Nats lineup that relies heavily on left-handed hitters Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche. There’s a decent chance that 88-win St. Louis could be up 2-0 on 98-win Washington before the five-game series shifts to the nation’s capital. You have Bud Selig to thank for that one.

The Storylines

  • The Nats beat the Cards in four out of seven games during the regular season and outscored ’em 43-40.
  • Zimmermann had a 2.36 ERA in 16 road starts this season and a 3.54 ERA in 16 starts in Washington. If the Nationals drop Game 1 at Busch Stadium, he could be a stabilizing force the next day.
  • Wainwright showed some signs of fatigue in early September, but his final regular season start was against this same Nationals team and he held them to one earned run over six innings while striking out five. He’s been telling reporters all summer that his surgically-repaired right elbow is 100 percent healthy.
  • E-Jax started opposite Wainwright in that aforementioned game, yielding eight earned runs while recording only four outs against the team he won the World Series with in 2011. That game was played at Busch Stadium. Jackson should feel a little more comfortable at home in Nationals Park for Game 3.
  • Carpenter made a surprise return to the Cardinals’ rotation in mid-September after being ruled out for the year with thoracic outlet syndrome. He looked fairly sharp in his three starts down the stretch, posting a 3.71 ERA and 12/3 K/BB ratio in 17 innings against the Cubs, Astros and Reds. The veteran righty was an animal in the postseason last October and can be effective even when he doesn’t have his best stuff.
  • It’s an odd thing in a series that features big names like Matt Holliday, Ryan Zimmerman, Carlos Beltran, Jayson Werth and Yadier Molina, but the player most casual fans will tune in to see this week is the 19-year-old Harper. He registered a 1.043 OPS over his final 126 regular-season plate appearances and told CSN Washington’s Mark Zuckerman on Saturday that he has no nerves about playing in his first postseason game. Harper has been overshadowed somewhat this year by the Angels’ Mike Trout. With the Halos failing to make the playoffs, Bryce gets the phenom spotlight all to himself.
  • The Nationals will have a distinct advantage if these games are close in the later innings because of their dominant bullpen. Tyler Clippard struggled in September but has the goods to bounce back now that he’s been given a week of rest. Drew Storen has been exceptional his entire young career and Sean Burnett is an elite setup man. The Cards have some nice, battle-tested relievers in Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs and Lance Lynn, but there’s a clear talent discrepancy. Oh, and St. Louis will carry only one lefty in the ‘pen: Mark Rzepczynski. He had a 4.24 ERA in 46 2/3 innings during the regular season.

Prediction

At the MLB level, anything can happen in a five-game series. And there’s certainly no glaring favorite here. But the Cardinals get to open with two consecutive games at home, where they were 50-31 this season. A quick two-game lead would put the younger, less experienced Nationals roster on the ropes.

CARDINALS WIN THE SERIES 3-1

Albert Pujols passes Mark McGwire with 584th career home run

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 11: Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim runs out a double during the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on August 11, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the Angels 14-3. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Angels DH Albert Pujols passed Mark McGwire for sole possession of 10th place on baseball’s all-time home run leaderboard, slugging his 584th career home run in the first inning of Wednesday night’s game against the Blue Jays.

Mike Trout had already slugged a solo home run off of Jays starter Marco Estrada to bring Pujols to the dish. Pujols jumped on an 0-1 cut fastball, sending it out to left-center field, clearing the fence by a few feet.

Pujols, who finished 4-for-4 with the homer and an RBI double, is batting .257/.321/.441 with 24 home runs and 99 RBI on the year. His next target on the home run leaderboard is Frank Robinson at 586.

Zach Britton allowed an earned run for the first time since April 30

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 22:  Zach Britton #53 of the Baltimore Orioles pitches for his 38th save in the ninth inning during a baseball game against the the Washington Nationals at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on August 22, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  The Oriole won 4-3.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
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Orioles closer Zach Britton had appeared in a major league record 43 consecutive games without allowing an earned run, spanning May 5 to August 22. That streak came to an end on Wednesday evening against the Nationals.

The Orioles entered the bottom of the ninth inning holding a 10-3 lead, but reliever Parker Bridwell immediately found himself in hot water. He yielded back-to-back singles to Danny Espinosa and Clint Robinson. He was able to strike out Trea Turner, but walked Jayson Werth to load the bases. Daniel Murphy then crushed his first career grand slam to make it a 10-7 game. That prompted manager Buck Showalter to bring in Britton.

Britton, too, was knocked around. He served up a single to Bryce Harper, followed by a double to Anthony Rendon that scored Harper, pushing the score to 10-8 and ending Britton’s streak. Wilson Ramos reached on a fielder’s choice back to Britton, but the lefty finally finished the game by getting Ryan Zimmerman to ground into a game-ending 4-6-3 double play.

Britton now holds a nice 0.69 ERA with 38 saves and a 61/16 K/BB ratio in 52 innings of work this season.