MLB Division Series Preview: St. Louis-Washington

The St. Louis Cardinals have a day to recoup from their wild-card win over the Atlanta Braves, and then on Sunday it’s time for the Cards to open play in the MLB Division Series when they host top-seeded Washington. The teams play Game 2 in St. Louis on Monday evening, then finish the best-of-five series in the nation’s capital on Wednesday-Thursday-Friday.

We’ll preview the Cards-Nationals matchup with the same format used in the Detroit-Oakland & Cincinnati-San Francisco previews published earlier and what will be used for the Baltimore-NY Yanks series coming up—break down each team in terms of ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and bullpen. Then we include add some context with a historical footnote and seeing what the smart money in Las Vegas thinks, before wrapping it up with a pick.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Washington is like San Francisco in that the quality of their pitching has overshadowed an underrated offense. The Nationals are sixth in the National League in on-base percentage, with Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman being solid contributors and shortstop Ian Desmond not far behind.

Bryce Harper is also fairly consistent, making five spots in eight that are assets in keeping the base paths active. Then let’s add in that Michael Morse, while having a bad year in 2012, had a good year in ’11 and is capable of lifting his game moving forward.

But if Washington is good at getting on base, St. Louis is outstanding—as in 2nd-best in the National League and keying the league’s most productive offense kind of outstanding. Yadier Molina, David Freese, Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran are more than simply power hitters. They keep themselves a regular part of the offense with hits and walks. Jon Jay is an excellent igniter at the top of the order and even shortstop Pete Kozma has a .383 OBP, albeit in only 72 at-bats.

When manager Mike Matheny goes to his bench, he can turn to Matt Carpenter and Skip Schumaker, both of whom are tough outs. There’s no weak point in the Cardinal lineup, not even a late-inning pinch hitter.

POWER: Most of the suspects who contribute to Washington’s on-base percentage also drive their power production, from LaRoche and Desmond who each slugged over .500, to Harper and Zimmerman who are in that neighborhood. Werth is a little low at .432, but his historical track record going back to Philadelphia tells you he can deliver. And power is an area where Morse stayed productive, at .455.

St. Louis is deep in power as well, with Molina and Craig being on the far side of .500, Matt Holliday just missing that benchmark by three points, then Freese and Beltran being threats to go deep or into the alleys. Kozma has again been a surprise here as well, slugging .569, although to look at the young shortstop suggests that’s a fluke of his low number of career at-bats. Either way, St. Louis has game-changers in its attack.

STARTING PITCHING: This should have been an edge for Washington, but the shutting down of Stephen Strasburg has drastically hurt that. It’s not that the Nationals don’t have more excellent pitching—Gio Gonzalez might win the Cy Young Award and Jordan Zimmerman is a legitimate #1 pitcher in his own right. But the Nats should be running three aces out there rather than two, and their Game 4 starter is still undetermined, with the options being postseason savvy Edwin Jackson—ironically a Cardinal last year who won the clinching game of the NLCS, or the talented, but inconsistent Ross Detwiler. I’d say they could bring back Gonzalez on short rest but any organization that would shut down one pitcher entirely surely wouldn’t push another.

While Strasburg is gone, Chris Carpenter is back for St. Louis. The veteran got three starts at the end of the year and pitched well. While two of them were the Astros and Cubs, the final outing was against the Reds, so Carpenter’s gotten back into facing playoff-caliber lineups. He’ll pitch Game 3 when the series goes back to Washington.

The Cardinals will open with Adam Wainwright, who’s pitched his best baseball in the second half and Jaime Garcia goes in Game 2. Kyle Lohse, who got the wild-card win, goes in Game 4 and as a 16-game winner with a sub-3.00 ERA, Lohse gives his team a solid edge in a potential fourth game when the Nats will be at the back of their rotation.

BULLPEN: Washington holds a substantial advantage here, being deeper and having higher quality available. St. Louis can match up in the closer spot, with Jason Motte and Tyler Clippard, and you can argue the Cardinals would have an edge if each were pitching a tie game.

But that’s about it. St. Louis’ only other quality reliever is Mitchell Boggs and he was incredibly shaky in Atlanta on Friday night and if not for a massacred call on an infield fly rule, we might be talking about Boggs as a goat of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Nationals can run a battalion of Drew Storen, Sean Burnett, Ryan Mattheus, Craig Stammen and Tom Gorzelanny out there, any one of whom is better than Boggs.

HISTORICAL NOTE: This is Washington’s first time in the playoffs, so obviously there’s no history here. Nor did previous baseball editions in Washington ever play St. Louis in the World Series. Although the last team in this city eventually became the Texas Rangers and I think we can all recall a little history between those two franchises. But that’s pushing it.

The city of Washington might feel a debt to St. Louis for different reasons. The Washington Redskins got the rights to draft Robert Griffin III through a trade with the St. Louis Rams for the #2 pick. We’ll see if the Rams make their two future first-rounders worth their while to have dealt RG3 and gone with Sam Bradford. But now I’m really pushing it in the search for a historical angle. Maybe I’ll just move on.

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS: Even without Strasburg, Washington is posted as a (-145) favorite, meaning you have to bet $145 to win $100 if you’re pick is the Nats. St. Louis is available at (+125) meaning you get 25 percent higher than your original wager if you cash in. I guess I’m surprise this number isn’t closer, given the respect the Cardinals should have earned for their October prowess.

THESPORTSNOTEBOOK PREDICTION: I like what St. Louis has going for them. The offense is not just deep and well-balanced, even more so than Washington’s but the Cardinal hitters have all proven they can hit in the crunch of October pressure against high-quality arms.

I also like the starting pitching matchups. Playing at home, St. Louis can wangle one win against Gonzalez/Zimmerman, and even though the series would go east, I’d be ready to bet on Carpenter and Lohse to close it out against the weaker part of the Washinton rotation. I’m certainly concerned about the bullpen issue, but that’s for another round. St. Louis wins in four and moves on the NLCS.