The St. Louis Cardinals aren’t your typical 88-win team. When you go through their roster, it’s difficult to find obvious holes. The lineup was second in the league in runs scored. The pitching staff allowed the fifth-fewest runs in the league and features Kyle Lohse, Adam Wainwright and now Chris Carpenter, who returned late in the season. The bullpen features a bunch of power arms in 18-game winner Lance Lynn, moved from the rotation, plus Mitchell Boggs and closer Jason Motte.
So, yes, the Washington Nationals won 10 more games during the regular season, but they weren’t the overwhelming favorite to win the series, especially considering the Cards’ status as defending World Series champs.
Before the series, I penciled Game 2 as the key game for the Nationals. It was the one game for which they had the obvious pitching advantage on paper, sending Jordan Zimmermann (good season) against Jaime Garcia (so-so season, although better in September). As it turns out, Garcia had to leave after two innings, but with Lynn sitting in the bullpen, Mike Matheny had a good option to go to.
Unlike in Game 1, the Cardinals didn’t miss their scoring opportunities in this game, routing Zimmermann and a slew of relievers in a 12-4 victory to lock up the series at a win apiece. Zimmermann usually is a good bet to deliver a quality start -- he did so in 24 of his 32 starts – and he allowed five runs or more just twice all season. One was a five-run game against the Marlins, but the other was an eight-run blowup on Sept. 1 against the Cardinals. A lot will be made of whether the Cardinals own Zimmermann, but I’d just chalk it up to small-sample-size fluke for now.
What isn’t a fluke is that the Cardinals now arguably have the edge in starting pitching for the next three games:
Game 3: Chris Carpenter (0-2, 3.71) versus Edwin Jackson (10-11, 4.03)
Game 4: Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86) versus Ross Detwiler (10-8, 3.40)
Game 5: Adam Wainwright (14-13, 3.94) versus Gio Gonzalez (21-8, 2.89)
Yes, Carpenter is a bit of a wild card with only three regular-season starts under his belt. But there are pitchers who know how to grind out a postseason game like he can. But Matheny isn’t asking him to go deep into the game; even after using Lynn for three innings in Game 2 and four relievers, the bullpen is in fine shape. Lynn might be unavailable after throwing 50 pitches, but I guess this is why you carry 12 pitchers in a postseason series.
Meanwhile, Jackson is a definite wild card. He started four postseason games for the Cardinals last year. He won one, got knocked out after two innings in another and walked seven in his World Series start. Obviously, the Cardinals know him well, so they expect them to be patient and force Jackson to show he has his command.
Game 4 has to rate as another edge for the Cards; Lohse had a quiet, underrated campaign and doesn’t seem likely to blow up. Detwiler is likewise an underrated pitcher, a lefty with a good power sinker who generates a lot of ground ball outs. But he’s also a guy with a big platoon split: .170 against lefties, .263 versus righties. The Cardinals, of course, are predominately right-handed.
And in a potential Game 5, it’s back to the Game 1 starters. One of them walked seven batters in that game and the other one didn’t.
After reading through all that: Don’t tell me the Nationals won’t miss Stephen Strasburg.
That doesn’t mean the Cardinals will win the series. The games will take place in Washington; the Nationals, despite the beating in Game 2, still have a good bullpen. They can score runs. I think they have a big edge in the dugout with Davey Johnson.
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Carlos Beltran added to his postseason legacy with two home runs. While Mets fans remember his strikeout looking against Wainwright for the final out in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, it’s fun to see Beltran back in the playoffs for the first time since that strikeout. With the Astros in 2004, he slugged eight home runs in 12 games; he now has 13 home runs in just 25 career postseason games. He had a red-hot first half before going through a big slump Aug. 15 through Sept. 21, when he hit .215 with one home run and six RBIs over 31 games. With a lineup that leans heavy to the right side with Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig and David Freese, the switch-hitting Beltran essentially fills the role that Lance Berkman provided a year ago: that lefty power bat in the middle of the order.
If the Nationals are to win this series, they'll have to shut down Beltran. But if this game is a harbinger of things to come, Beltran just might help carry the Cards into the NLCS.