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

And That Happened: Saturday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the rest of Saturday’s scores and highlights:

Cubs 4, Blue Jays 3: The Blue Jays didn’t look any more comfortable at Wrigley Field on Saturday than they had during Friday’s series opener, dropping their second straight game after Anthony Rizzo sealed the go-ahead run on an RBI single in the seventh inning. The Cubs, meanwhile, reveled in Jose Quintana’s second quality start of the month and delighted the crowd with a two-RBI effort from Ian Happ and footage of David Ross jumping out of a plane — a stunt that would have doubled in entertainment value had Ross successfully convinced manager Joe Maddon to join in the fun.

Pirates 6, Cardinals 4: Neither the Pirates nor the Cardinals had relievers to spare when a one-hour, 56-minute rain delay disrupted their contest in the second inning. Chad Kuhl and Michael Wacha were forced to return to the mound after the downpour subsided, both to very different results. Wacha struggled to regain command of the strike zone, slipping on two home runs and a productive double play as the Pirates built a five-run lead in the second. Kuhl, on the other hand, limited the Cardinals to one run over five innings, setting down six strikeouts and clubbing a second-inning double en route to his sixth win of the season.

Dodgers 3, Tigers 0: Curtis Granderson made his Dodgers debut on Saturday, scoring on Adrian Gonzalez’s RBI single in the seventh inning to put the club on the board. The win, capped by a smart Yasmani Grandal home run in the ninth, marked the Dodgers’ sixth straight victory and placed them in the history books alongside the 2004 Rays and 2006 Red Sox with 13 consecutive Interleague wins in a single season.

Mariners 7, Rays 6: Mitch Haniger is back from the disabled list, a point he emphasized in the third inning of Seattle’s win with his first career grand slam:

The Rays returned with three solo shots in the last third of the game, but fell just short of the tying run after Edwin Diaz shut down the top of the order in the ninth. With the win, the Mariners positioned themselves half a game back of a wild card spot, though they’ll need to edge the Angels and Twins to avoid any potential tie-breakers.

Angels 5, Orioles 1: Albert Pujols didn’t get any closer to tying Jim Thome’s home run record on Saturday, but that didn’t stop teammate Mike Trout from entering the history books. Trout clubbed two home runs in the Angels’ first win of the weekend, becoming the third Major League player with six consecutive 25+ homer campaigns before his age-26 season. Luis Valbuena, while a good 511 home runs shy of Pujols’ career record and 94 home runs and six years too late to match Trout’s milestone, also collected two home runs to back a solid effort from JC Ramirez.

Twins 5, Diamondbacks 0: The Diamondbacks were toppled in a rare shutout on Saturday, taking their second consecutive loss after an even rarer implosion from ace right-hander Zack Greinke. Greinke expended 96 pitches and a season-high four walks in four innings, while Minnesota trounced the D-backs with a five-run spread in the fourth. The righty’s early exit will put a strain on Arizona’s bullpen during their series finale as the club tries to stop their skid and retake their one-game lead over the Rockies in the NL wild card race.

Reds 11, Braves 8: It looked like Robert Stephenson‘s luck may have finally taken a turn for the better. The rookie right-hander grabbed hold of his first win of the year on Saturday, backing the team’s 11-run outburst with five innings of two-run, three-strikeout ball. Cincinnati’s bullpen was far from flawless, especially after Blake Wood surrendered four runs in the ninth, but Scooter Gennett‘s go-ahead grand slam in the top of the inning gave the Reds enough of a cushion to pull off the series win.

Mets 8, Marlins 1: Marcell Ozuna wore several hats during Saturday’s loss to the Mets, from sole run producer to professional outfield field balloon patrol.

Despite his best efforts, the Marlins couldn’t rally against Rafael Montero, who helped snap a five-game losing streak after scattering one run and five strikeouts over six innings.

Yankees 4, Red Sox 3: Newly-returned from the disabled list, CC Sabathia stifled the rival Red Sox through six innings while Todd Frazier belted the winning run with a 363-footer in the sixth. The Sox still sit four games up in the NL East, however, and commemorated the loss with a solo shot by 20-year-old Rafael Devers, who bounced a home run off the Green Monster for the third homer he’s collected in as many games against the Yankees. For the record, no Major League player under the age of 21 has managed the feat since Babe Ruth in 1915.

Astros 3, Athletics 0: Astros’ third baseman Alex Bregman learned an invaluable lesson during the club’s 3-0 shutout on Saturday: If you’re thinking of running on Boog Powell, don’t.

Indians 5, Royals 0: Trevor Bauer may not understand why he dominated during the Indians’ shutout on Saturday, but that didn’t make him any less grateful for the win. “It’s backward,” Bauer was quoted by MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. “I wasn’t sharp. I didn’t punch people out. I had a lot of balls hit hard. And no runs. So I don’t know. I’ll take it.” Bauer flummoxed the Royals through 6 1/3 innings, granting seven hits and two free passes while the Indians put up a modest five-run backing against Jason Vargas.

Rangers 17, White Sox 7: The Rangers hit season highs in almost every category on Saturday, dismantling Derek Holland and the rest of the White Sox with a whopping 17 runs, 20 hits and 36 bases. Home runs from Rougned Odor, Mike Napoli and Shin-Soo Choo crowned their efforts as the White Sox took their sixth loss in seven games and dropped to a disappointing 21.5 games back of the division lead.

Brewers 6, Rockies 3: Jesus Aguilar hasn’t been pencilled into the starting lineup since August 16, but that didn’t stop the rookie pinch-hitter from making his presence felt. He cranked a two-RBI home run off of Greg Holland in the ninth, giving the Brewers an edge as they tried to stay ahead of the Diamondbacks for the first wild card spot in the National League. Key defensive moves also played a role in the win, not the least of which was a rare 2-6-2 double play to nab Neil Walker at the plate and close out the first inning:

Padres 3, Nationals 1: Yangervis Solarte played spoiler to Stephen Strasburg on Saturday, taking the right-hander deep on a 1-2 pitch in the first inning for his 13th home run of the season. It was the fatal flaw in an otherwise pristine outing, during which Strasburg distributed four hits, two runs and eight strikeouts in six innings. That’s not too shabby for a pitcher coming off the disabled list with elbow issues, and certainly enough to put the Nats’ minds at ease as they push into the postseason. The Padres still have a 12-game gap to close if they want to contend this October, which will require them to scoot past the Pirates, Marlins, Cardinals, Brewers and Diamondbacks for a wild card spot.

Phillies 12, Giants 9: Denard Span didn’t come to mess around. The Giants’ centerfielder squared up the first pitch he saw from the Phillies’ Jared Eickhoff, postmarking it to the right field corner in the first inning. He needed just 15.79 seconds to touch home plate again, logging his first inside-the-park home run since he legged one out in Little League.

The Giants’ offense mustered up an additional eight runs behind Span’s initial effort, but had no way of preventing Ty Blach and Josh Osich from returning all nine runs and then some. The Phillies’ win, powered by a seven-run explosion in the sixth inning and Ty Kelly‘s go-ahead grand slam, was their second in 10 games and snapped a six-game skid.

Watch: Mike Trout ties MLB record with his 25th home run

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It was only a matter of time before Mike Trout courted another all-time record, and on Saturday, he found himself in elite company with his 25th and 26th home runs of the season. He put the Angels on the board with a 429-foot blast in the first inning, depositing an 0-1 fastball from the Orioles’ Kevin Gausman into the left field bleachers:

In the third inning, with the Angels up 2-1, Trout returned to tack on another insurance run. He targeted Gausman’s slider for his second solo shot of the evening and cleared the center field fence with a 418-footer to bring his total to 26 home runs on the year.

Trout has mashed at a staggering .339/.471/.596 clip since his return from the disabled list last month, and Saturday’s totals helped mark his sixth consecutive season with at least 25 home runs. That’s a record few have matched before their age-26 season; in fact, only Hall of Fame sluggers Eddie Mathews and Frank Robinson have ever pulled it off.

Assuming he continues to rake in hits and plate appearances over the last six weeks of the regular season — and there’s nothing to indicate that he won’t — Trout is in line to join elite company of a different kind. The 26-year-old entered Saturday’s game with a 206 OPS+ (park-adjusted on-base plus slugging). According to MLB.com’s Matt Kelly, that means Trout’s hitting at a better clip than the average Major League player by a full 106 percent. Should he finish the year with a 200 OPS+ and 502 plate appearances or better, he’ll be the first player to do so since Barry Bonds obliterated the competition with his 263 OPS+ in 2004.