Breaking down the Nats-Cardinals matchup

Breaking down the Nats-Cardinals matchup
October 7, 2012, 2:39 pm
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ST. LOUIS -- One owns 11 World Series titles, including the most recent one, and features a roster loaded with postseason experience yet a rookie manager who has never been here before.

The other owns zero World Series titles -- at least, technically, as a franchise -- and features a roster with barely any postseason experience yet a veteran manager who has guided four different organizations into October.

You want contrasts? The National League Division Series between the Nationals and Cardinals is all about contrasts, pitting one of baseball's most-storied franchises against one of the game's historically least-successful towns.

But how do these two teams stack up on the field? Let's break down the matchup...

ROTATION
NATS: After boasting the majors' best rotation most of the season, the Nationals slipped a bit in September and wound up slightly behind the Rays while still posting a dominant 3.40 ERA. The best thing they've got going for them: All four of their playoff starters (Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, Ross Detwiler) are capable of completely dominating an opposing lineup. The worst thing they have going for them: Any one of the four (but particularly Jackson and Detwiler) is capable of getting knocked out of a game early. What they lack in experience, they more than make up for in raw ability. Their two big guns also pitched extremely well down the stretch, with Gonzalez going 5-1 with a 1.35 ERA over his final six starts and Zimmermann going 3-0 with a 2.61 ERA over his final five starts.

CARDS: With a collective 3.62 ERA, the Cardinals rotation ranked fourth in the majors, behind only the Rays, Nationals and Dodgers. This is a unit loaded with big names who have performed on the big stage before, but the name recognition outpaces their actual performance this season. Game 1 starter Adam Wainwright posted the highest ERA of his career (3.94), though he did steadily improve during his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Game 2 starter Jaime Garcia's season was interrupted by injury, though he finished strong (4-1, 2.50 ERA in September). Former ace Chris Carpenter barely pitched at all this season due to a shoulder and neck injury and wound up making only three September starts. Their best starter this year, Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86 ERA) was burned up in the NL Wild Card Game and now won't be available until Game 4 of this series.

WHO HAS THE EDGE?

BULLPEN
NATS: The Nationals finished with the seventh-best bullpen in the majors, based on a 3.23 ERA. But they've also got one of the deepest relief corps in the postseason, with all eight guys boasting ERAs under 3.73 (six of them under 3.00). Drew Storen returned to his top form late in the season and earned his closer's job back. Tyler Clippard, though, struggled big-time down the stretch and is a question mark entering this series. Sean Burnett had some struggles late but seemed to right himself just in time. Ryan Mattheus, Craig Stammen, Michael Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny quietly put together outstanding seasons. And the X-factor might well be rookie Christian Garcia, who made the postseason roster after only 13 big-league appearances.

CARDS: This was not one of the better units in the majors, ranking 20th with a 3.90 ERA. But the Cardinals do have a lights-out trio at the back end, with midseason acquisition Edward Mujica (1.03 ERA), setup man Mitchell Boggs (2.21 ERA) and closer Jason Motte (42 saves) lined up well for the seventh-through-ninth innings. Their biggest weakness: a lack of lefties. Marc Rzepczynski is the lone southpaw in the bullpen, and manager Mike Matheny will have to pick his spots to use him.

WHO HAS THE EDGE?

LINEUP
NATS: Beset by injuries for much of the season, the Nationals finally got healthy late and became quite productive because of it. They boast eight different regulars capable of hitting the ball out of the park and four players who mashed at least 22 homers. It all starts at the top, with Jayson Werth reaching base at a .387 clip and Bryce Harper causing all kinds of havoc as the No. 2 hitter. There are some lingering concerns about Michael Morse (dealing with a hand and hamstring issue) and Danny Espinosa (led the NL with 189 strikeouts) but these guys are capable of scoring runs in bunches when everyone gets going.

CARDS: Only the Brewers scored more runs in the NL than the Cardinals, who have thunder up and down the lineup. Five different guys hit at least 20 homers and three different guys drove in at least 90 runs. The 2-3-4 combo of Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and Allen Craig is particularly tough to hold in check, and Yadier Molina remains one of the best clutch hitters in the game. The Cardinals lineup is skewered toward the right side of the plate, and they lost a key piece in leadoff man and shortstop Rafael Furcal (though rookie Pete Kozma was fantastic down the stretch).

WHO HAS THE EDGE?

BENCH
NATS: Davey Johnson made it a priority last winter to upgrade his bench, and the Nationals went out and did just that. Chad Tracy is one of the best pinch-hitters in the game. After years of teasing everyone with his ability, Roger Bernadina blossomed into a fantastic fourth outfielder and triple-threat at the plate, in the field and on the bases. Rookies Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi showed maturity beyond their years. Backup catcher Jesus Flores often struggled when called upon, but he's not likely to see much (if any) action in this series, unless starter Kurt Suzuki gets hurt.

CARDS: Manager Mike Matheny has some versatile pieces at his disposal, with just about everyone having the ability to play multiple positions. Corner infielder Matt Carpenter and utilityman Skip Schumaker are the best of the bunch. What the Cardinals don't have is a ton of speed off the bench or a true pinch-hitting specialist in the mold of Tracy.

WHO HAS THE EDGE?

HEAD-TO-HEAD THIS SEASON
(By Chase Hughes, CSNwashington.com)
These teams met seven times during the regular season, all late, with the Nationals winning four of those games. Most of the contests, surprisingly, were blowouts, but overall the head-to-head stats are close...

Games won: Nats 4, Cardinals 3
Runs: Nats 43, Cardinals 40
Hits: Nats 74, Cardinals 64
Home runs: Nats 10, Cardinals 8
Batting average: Nats .294, Cardinals .268
Strikeouts: Nats 59, Cardinals 53

Here is a look at how those seven games played out...

Aug. 30 at Nationals Park
Nats 8, Cardinals 1
The Nationals began the season series with a blowout of the Cardinals thanks to some early offense and one of Edwin Jackson's best starts of the season. Facing his former team, Jackson struck out 10 and allowed just four hits with zero earned runs in eight innings of work. His 123 pitches that day were a season high. Bryce Harper got things started early with a two-run homer in the first. The Nationals continued to pile on runs and gave Jaime Garcia one of his worst starts of the season.
Original game story

Aug. 31 at Nationals Park
Nats 10, Cardinals 0
In the second game the Nationals saw a similar result, this time with Gio Gonzalez pitching the gem. Gonzalez threw a shutout, the first of his career, with just five hits allowed in his 17th win of the year. The Nationals got out to a first-inning lead once again as Adam LaRoche hit a two-run single off Adam Wainwright. The Nats ended up scoring six earned runs off the NLDS Game 1 starter in just 2 23 innings.
Original game story

Sept. 1 at Nationals Park
Cardinals 10, Nats 9
The Nationals again got off to an early lead, scoring four off Kyle Lohse in the first inning. Jordan Zimmermann gave it all back, though, and the Nats entered the eighth inning up 9-8. St. Louis tied it at 9 when Carlos Beltran hit an RBI single off Sean Burnett. Drew Storen entered for the ninth and allowed a leadoff single to Allen Craig, who then stole second and scored the winning run off a deep line drive by David Freese.
Original game story

Sept. 2 at Nationals Park
Nats 4, Cardinals 3
The fourth game of the series didn't feature the kind of high scoring that the previous three did, with Stephen Strasburg pitching six scoreless innings and striking out nine. Strasburg, though, didn't earn the win after Sean Burnett allowed a two-run homer to Daniel Descalso in the seventh. The Nats were able to earn the victory by getting to reliever Lance Lynn. Lynn allowed RBI singles to Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa in the bottom of the seventh and gave up a lead the Nats would hold. Tyler Clippard came in to pitch the ninth and earned his 29th save.
Original game story

Sept. 28 at Busch Stadium
Cardinals 12, Nats 2
Edwin Jackson could not recreate the magic from his first start against the Cardinals and put in his worst outing of the season. Jackson allowed eight earned runs in 1 13 innings and left the game completely out of hand. St. Louis had won eight of its previous 10 games and was showing no signs of slowing down. Adam Wainwright, on the other hand, was able to redeem himself in his second start against the Nats. He pitched six innings of one-run ball and allowed just five hits and one walk. Despite the loss, the Nats' magic number to win the division was lowered to 2 after the Braves blew a late lead to the Mets.
Original game story

Sept. 29 at Busch Stadium
Nats 6, Cardinals 4 (10)
After taking a beating the day before, the Nationals earned a big win in extra innings off an RBI double by Kurt Suzuki. Jordan Zimmermann pitched masterfully against a hot Cardinals lineup by beginning the game with six scoreless innings. He ended up surrendering three in the seventh before getting pulled. Michael Morse got Washington started with a phantom grand slam in the first off Kyle Lohse, told by umpires to recreate his swing following a video review. It was the second time the Nats dropped four on Lohse in the first inning of a game this season. The Nats' magic number for the N.L. East was lowered to 1 as the Braves won to prevent the champagne celebration.
Original game story

Sept. 30 at Busch Stadium
Cardinals 10, Nats 4
Ross Detwiler took the mound in his home state with a chance to help the Nationals clinch the N.L. East. But St. Louis regained its hitting stroke and quickly made sure there would be no celebration for the Nats at Busch Stadium. Detwiler allowed five runs in the second before being yanked, and his replacement, Chien-Ming Wang, couldn't stop the bleeding with two runs allowed in the third. The Nationals did make it interesting in the fourth by getting to Lance Lynn once again for three runs, but Wang immediately served up a homer to Carlos Beltran and the Cardinals ran away with it.
Original game story

THE FINAL VERDICT
Every matchup in October is a tough one, and this certainly qualifies for the Nationals. The Cardinals obviously have the experience and talent up and down the roster to win this series and make a deep run at their second straight World Series title. The Nationals, though, won 98 games for a reason. They had one of the best pitching staffs in the majors, one of the most productive lineups, one of the deepest bullpens and have one of the best managers around.

They must win at least one of these first two games in St. Louis, though, because the prospect of returning home down 0-2 and needing both Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler to keep their season alive is not one they want to experience. If either Gio Gonzalez or Jordan Zimmermann (or both) can churn out quality performances in Games 1 and 2, and if someone can produce a big late hit against a potentially shaky St. Louis bullpen, the Nats should be able to steal at least one game here.

Then it becomes a matter of whether they can beat veterans Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse in Games 3 and 4 at home. If they manage to win only one of those, this thing goes to a decisive Game 5. In that potential showdown, look for Gonzalez to step up big and pitch the Nationals into the NLCS.

WHO WINS THE SERIES?