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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

Wilson Ramos helped off the field after suffering an apparent knee injury

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 14:  Wilson Ramos #40 of the Washington Nationals hits a home run in the seventh inning against the New York Mets at Nationals Park on September 14, 2016 in Washington, DC.  Washington won the game 1-0. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
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Monday night has, unfortunately, been a night of injuries. Joaquin Benoit and Corey Kluber suffered injuries earlier in the evening and now it appears that Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos has suffered an apparent right knee injury.

In the top of the sixth inning, Yasmany Tomas hit a double to right field that scored Paul Goldschmidt. Brandon Drury was on his way to home plate as right fielder Brian Goodwin got the relay throw into first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman threw home but it sailed high. Ramos leaped to grab the ball and came down awkwardly, as MASN’s Dan Kolko describes. Ramos clutched and pointed at his right knee. He was unable to put any weight on it as he was helped off the field. Per Kolko, Ramos struggled to get down the dugout steps.

Pedro Severino came in as a defensive replacement for Ramos. The Nationals should have more on his condition after the game. It’s worth noting that Ramos tore the ACL and MCL in the same knee back in 2012.

With the Nationals headed to the playoffs, this is a bad time to lose Ramos if the injury is indeed serious. He came into Monday night batting .307/.354/.497 with 22 home runs and 80 RBI in 520 plate appearances. He went 1-for-3 with a single before exiting Monday’s game.

Corey Kluber exits Monday’s start with groin tightness

SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 12:  Corey Kluber #28 of the Cleveland Indians reacts during the 87th Annual MLB All-Star Game at PETCO Park on July 12, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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Indians ace Corey Kluber lasted only four innings in Monday night’s start against the Tigers, exiting with tightness in his right groin, Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com reports. Kluber had allowed two runs on five hits and a walk with three strikeouts. Both runs scored in the bottom of the second inning on a J.D. Martinez two-run home run.

More should be known on Kluber’s status after the game.

With a week left in the regular season, the Indians are hobbling to the finish line. Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were injured earlier this month, forcing the club to get creative with its starting rotation.

The Indians are leading the Tigers 5-3 as of this writing. If they win, they will clinch the AL Central for their first division title since 2007.