Five Cardinals-Nationals questions
This is a historic matchup. The Cardinals have the second-most world championships of all time and could be considered the greatest franchise in baseball history other than the Yankees. The Cardinals are attempting to become only the fourth National League team to win the World Series in back-to-back seasons, the first since the Big Red Machine in 1975-76. And then there are the Nationals, who will play the first postseason game by a Washington-based team since 1933. Washington teams are 1,646 games under .500; that .441 winning percentage is the lowest of any current franchise during their existence.
And now it's the Nationals and Cardinals in the NLDS.
Here are five questions.
How will the Nats' rotation look without Stephen Strasburg?
Just fine. They obviously will miss the big guy, but Strasburg had the fifth-best ERA among the starters the second half of the season. His stuff in September wasn't nearly as good as it was in April. Still, the Nationals' 3.40 starters ERA was the best in the National League. Game 1 starter Gio Gonzalez led the league with 21 wins, he throws 95 with a great changeup and has an even better curveball. The A's traded him this past winter in part because they weren't going to be able to afford him; they thought he walked too many (that has changed); and they wondered whether his happy-go-lucky demeanor would play in a contending situation (it has). Jordan Zimmermann (2.94 ERA) is as good a No. 2 starter as there is in the postseason, and Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler throw 95 mph.
Has the Cardinal mystique carried over from last year?
Apparently so. The wild-card victory over the Braves showed us again to never discount the Cardinals, even when they get behind early. There is something special about this team; it finds ways to win, be it taking advantage of a terrible defensive game by the Braves or a famously questionable call by the umpires on an infield fly ruling in the eighth inning. This is their time of year, it seems. They, more than most teams, have tremendous poise at all times, which is crucial in October. Over the past two September/October stretches, the Cardinals are 35-21: No team has a better record. Is a repeat of last October possible? Sure.
Who will close for the Nationals?
They have been through several closers this year, including Henry Rodriguez, but the likely choice will be Drew Storen, who missed the first three months of the season with an elbow injury. But he was terrific down the stretch, throwing in the mid-90s with great late life. Storen's return to health, and to the closer role, allows Tyler Clippard to return to what he does best, shutting things down in the eighth inning. Nats manager Davey Johnson has long been a master of running a bullpen. He has said many times that teams win in the postseason with bullpen and bench. And the Nationals have both.
How dangerous is the St. Louis offense?
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals finished second in the NL in runs scored and first in on-base percentage. They had five players with an OPS over .800, the most of any team in the major leagues. Even though Carlos Beltran wasn't nearly as productive in the second half as he was in the first, he was a terrific signing in the offseason and has a history of great play in the postseason (.360 hitter with 18 home runs in 86 at-bats). With the departure of Albert Pujols to free agency, Allen Craig has emerged as middle-of-the-order hitter, driving in 92 runs in 469 at-bats, and batted .400 with runners in scoring position this year. The Cardinals have as close as there is to an American League lineup, with danger everywhere. Plus, they have their pitching lined up with Adam Wainwright in Game 1, Jaime Garcia in Game 2, Chris Carpenter in Game 3 and Kyle Lohse in Game 4. Carpenter is 9-2 with a 3.05 ERA lifetime in the postseason.
Are the Nationals underrated?
In a way, yes. All a lot of people know about the Nationals is that they shut Strasburg down. What they don't realize is that the Nationals have what Davey Johnson believes is the best infield in the league. First baseman Adam LaRoche might finish in the top five of the MVP voting. Second baseman Danny Espinosa is a terrific defensive player; he and St. Louis' Skip Schumaker throw as well as any second basemen in the game. Shortstop Ian Desmond is among the best athletes in baseball: 25 home runs, tremendous range and arm. And third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is one of the game's best all-round players, and has been for years. But in the losing days in Washington, he was a lone threat in the order. Now the Nats have surrounded him with punch, led by 19-year-old Bryce Harper, who hit 22 homers this year; only Tony Conigliaro hit more home runs in one season as a teenager. Harper hit .330 with seven homers and 14 RBIs in September, and he had 14 hits in his last 33 at-bats. "He had his slump,'' Storen said, "but it wasn't a catastrophic one like any other 19-year-old might have. But to make the adjustments he made is amazing, especially for a 19-year-old.'' The Nationals are a complete team in every way.
The pick: Nationals in five.