The Cardinals got to the playoffs by sneaking in as the second wild card in the National League, finally clinching the berth for good on the second to last day of the season. Then, they stormed into Atlanta and knocked off the top wild card Braves thanks to Atlanta's sloppiness defensively, and with a little bit of help from the umpires. The Nationals on the other hand, rolled through the National League this year, winning a major league best 98 games and leading the NL East for most of the season.
Both of these teams have great starting pitching, but Washington will be missing their key weapon from the regular season, Stephen Strasburg. That doesn't mean they're doomed however, as top NL Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez will be starting Sunday's series opener in St Louis, and potentially game five in Washington. The Nationals' other young ace, Jordan Zimmermann, will be starting game two on Monday, and veteran (and former Cardinal) Edwin Jackson starts game three for Washington. Game four will skew in favor of the Cardinals though, with Ross Detwiler on the hill for the Nationals. But here's the thing about Washington's rotation: aside from Gonzalez, all of their starters have struggled near the end of the season. Zimmermann has a 4.41 ERA in his last six starts, and while he's striking out a batter per inning, he's been plagued by an epidemic of balls leaving the park against him. Jackson is having the same issue, and his ERA over the same time period is 6.54. Detwiler is also allowing a ton of homers as of late, a problem that is being exacerbated by his walking 4.60 batters per nine innings over his last six starts.
The Cardinals' rotation is a much more experienced bunch than Washington's crew. St Louis lacks a true ace like Washington, but makes up for it with a crew of veterans who know what they're doing. The four men in their rotation this fall have all won rings before, with all but Adam Wainwright in last season's World Championship rotation. Wainwright is the game one starter for the Cardinals, and his matchup with Gonzalez will be a pitchers duel of former excellent prospects that have done very well for themselves in the majors. Zimmermann will be opposed in game two by Jaime Garcia, who had a 2.50 ERA in his last six starts after a disastrous summer. Game three will be extremely interesting, and has the most experience for either side in the series. Chris Carpenter, who made just three starts for the Cardinals all year, will get the start against Jackson. Three starts is just too small of a sample size to draw any conclusions from, but there is the potential for a short outing there, something that would play in Washington's favor. Wild card playoff winner Kyle Lohse returns to the hill in game four against Detwiler, a clear advantage for St Louis. The starting pitching in this series is pretty even. It's really a battle of youth and experience, with each team possessing one definitive weak spot.
The battle of the bullpens in this series is more even than in St Louis's playoff game with the Braves. While the explanation of the Cardinals not having a bullpen ace like the Braves did still rings true, Washington also doesn't have a bullpen ace. In fact, they removed their closer for the entire season, Tyler Clippard, from the closing role going into the playoffs and handed the job to former closer Drew Storen. Storen missed a good chunk of the season and was sloppy until September, when he struck out 14 hitters without walking one. Struggles from Clippard alone aren't good, but Sean Burnett has also had a bad September. Ryan Mattheus has also had a difficult September, and the team actually gave a roster spot to rookie Christian Garcia, a former top prospect for the Yankees who has come into his own as a reliever since joining the Nationals organization before 2011.
The Cardinals lineup will be the same lineup they trotted out during the wild card game against the Braves, and you know what to expect here: potency. Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, and Yadier Molina all in a row is a powerful quartet that can put runs on the board in a hurry if you're not careful. By the same token, Washington's 2-5 in the order is also quite fearsome, and has been on a roll in September. Rookie teenager Bryce Harper bats second, followed by long-time National Ryan Zimmerman, a rejuvenated Adam LaRoche, and the powerful Michael Morse. Those four players combined for 31 homers over their last month of play. Throw in power hitting shortstop Ian Desmond in the six hole, and Washington's lineup might actually be better overall than the St Louis lineup, especially when you consider the veteran nature of Jayson Werth leading off and Kurt Suzuki in front of the pitcher.
Manager Davey Johnson is tempting the gods by going with just one catcher on his bench in the form of veteran Jesus Flores. Washington has a pair of extremely versatile players on their bench, including do everything infielder Steve Lombardozzi and do everything outfielder Roger Bernadina. Throw in a big bat in Tyler Moore and the solid veteran in Chad Tracy, and you have the makings of a pretty solid bench. The Cardinals bench is the same as their wild card bench, subtracting a pair of rookies in third catcher Bryan Anderson and utilityman Ryan Jackson. St Louis has Matt Carpenter as their power bat off the bench, along with the light hitting Skip Schumaker, backup catcher Tony Cruz, and a pair of outfielders in Adron Chambers and Shane Robinson. I like the composition of Washington's bench a lot more than the Cardinals bench, which seems almost one dimensional.
These are two very evenly matched teams. The Cardinals are clearly the more veteran bunch that's been to the dance before, while the Nationals are the upstart club that has surpassed all expectations and contended earlier than expected. This series is a coinflip, and I don't know who you could consider as the favorite. If it comes down to late game moves, I'd have a lot more confidence in Davey Johnson to push the right buttons with the personnel he has rather than rookie Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.