MLB News, Sports News

NLCS Preview: On Paper, Pitching Should Dominate the NLCS

Nationals Starters and Cardinals Bullpen Make for an Intriguing NLCS Matchup

The 106-win Dodgers won’t play in their third straight World Series. The 97-win Braves won’t represent the Senior Circuit either. Instead, the Nationals and Cardinals, both teams who trailed in their respective Division Series that will go toe-to-toe in a battle to see who gets to try to win the Fall Classic.

There’s an old saying that pitching and defense wins games. Both teams have plenty of pitching, but in different areas of their staffs. For Washington, it’s all about the rotation. Throw Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez at any team, and you’ll have a good chance to win. In St. Louis’ case, if the concept of a bullpen is to shorten a game, with arms like Carlos Martinez, Genesis Cabrera, and Andrew Miller, games can get pretty quick if your starter only has to go five.

Stephen Strasburg

Taking first a look at the Nationals, one thing that we have learned about this team is that pretty much nothing fazes them. A 19-31 start? Eh, we’ll just go 74-36 the rest of the way. Down 3-1 in the eighth in a one-game Wild Card with Josh Hader on the mound for Milwaukee? Sure, we’ll post three runs off a guy who had never been scored upon in his postseason career. Trail the juggernaut Dodgers 2-1 in the Division Series and be down 3-1 in the eighth with Clayton Kershaw on the mound in Game Five? Based on the way this Nationals team plays, they had LA just where they wanted them.

In Year One P.B. (Post Bryce), Washington has proven that they were always more than a one-man show, even if that one man was one of the biggest faces of the sport. Anthony Rendon is finally getting the kudos he deserves as a bona fide superstar and one that the Lerner family is going to have to pay handsomely if they want to keep him in the nation’s capital. Juan Soto, after scuffling in September, hit two big homers in the Division Series. Trea Turner is as fast as it gets at the top of the lineup. What’s frightening about the Nats is they’re still relatively young. Rendon hasn’t hit 30 yet. Soto just hit 20. Victor Robles is 22 and Turner is 26. There’s still another run or two in them.

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What’s also frightening about Washington is its bullpen. Kudos to Dave Martinez on taking Terry Francona’s philosophy from 2016 to the max and using your best pitchers for however long they need to go in high leverage situations and not being afraid to use any of his big three starters out of the bullpen. It’s just a shame that he has to do that because there isn’t a reliable bullpen arm to be found outside of Daniel Hudson. Closer Sean Doolittle had a regular season ERA of 4.05. Fernando Rodney was north of 5.50. Hunter Strickland, Wander Suero, the list goes on.

How the Cardinals Bullpen Depth Might be Their Saving Grace Against the Nationals

For the Cardinals, they were an example of slow and steady wins the race. For a long time, it seemed like no one wanted to win the NL Central. At the end of it, steady play and slight improvements in the second half from proven veterans allowed them to pull away from the Cubs and a surging Brewers team. Never too high or low (unless you’re a manager who doesn’t know he’s being live streamed in a postgame speech), just steady. As we mentioned earlier, St. Louis’ strength is its bullpen. Martinez turned into a solid closer when Jordan Hicks went down.  Ryan Helsley became a solid arm down the stretch and, as we’ve seen in the past, Miller can pitch anytime, anywhere, to anyone.

The rotation is a bit more volatile, but, unsurprisingly, steady. Dakota Hudson and Jack Flaherty did have breakout seasons and they’ll slot in the mix alongside the more experienced Game One starter in Mike Mikolas and the veteran Adam Wainwright in Game Two.

And the offense is, once again, dependable. One thing that give Cards fans hope is that both Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna got hot at the same time in the Division Series after having subpar years by their standards. That will need to be a key, the ability to drive in players like Kolten Wong and Dexter Fowler if St. Louis wants to advance.

The Cardinals won the season series from the Nats 5-2, winning both series against Washington, including taking two of three in mid-September. Even with that in mind, the National open as a -120 favorite in the series. The big question will be can the Nats philosophy of using Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin in relief for an inning, essentially throwing their bullpen session as a live side during the game, hold for seven more games to advance?  If it can, the Commissioner’s Trophy could be heading to DC.

For my money, I think Washington has just enough big moments in them to counter the consistent Cardinals. I won’t be singing a different tune even if St. Louis wins game one at home. This Nationals postseason hasn’t been easy. It’s been a bumpy ride and they’ve won games and series by the seat of their pants, living in the moment. Look for that to continue. Washington in six.

 

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– Written by Matt Watkins