Washington Nationals vs. St. Louis Cardinals: 5 Major Matchups in Game 1 of NLDS
The St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals make for an interesting matchup in the NLDS.
The Cardinals have 11 World Series titles to the Nationals' zero. St. Louis won it all last year; Washington, meanwhile, will be making its first playoff appearance since moving from Montreal.
Experience aside, the Nationals were the best team in the National League and will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
They also boast one of the league's best pitching staffs, starting with Gio Gonzalez, the 21-game winner, who is a candidate for the Cy Young Award.
Ultimately, the game will come down to matchups.
Here are five matchups that will no doubt decide which team gets to walk away with a 1-0 lead.
1. Gio Gonzalez vs. Matt Holliday
Gio Gonzalez enjoyed a breakout season with the Washington Nationals.
In his first year with the team, and his first season in the NL, Gonzalez led this team with a 21-8 record, a WHIP of 1.13 and an ERA of 2.89. He finished with the fourth-best strikeout numbers in the league with 207.
Now in his ninth year in the major leagues, Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday is still at the top of his game. He hit .295, had 27 home runs and finished seventh in the National League in both RBI and runs scored.
With Gonzalez having spent most of his career in the American League, Holliday has only seen him three times. In those three at-bats, the Cardinals outfielder has yet to get a hit.
Gonzalez's curve ball is an absolutely nasty and deceptive pitch. He has thrown it with consistency against both right- and left-handed hitters.
His curveball has set him apart from his competitors and has made him one of the best left-handed pitchers in all of baseball.
2. Playoff Experience
As defending World Series champions, the Cardinals have the upper hand in playoff experience. However, the Nationals do have experience at the top...
Nationals manager Davey Johnson has been to the playoffs with four different teams as a manager, including the Nationals (Mets, Reds, Orioles).
He has won five playoff series and will be a huge help to the young Washington roster.
Not expected to be a strong point for the Nationals at the beginning of the season, their bullpen got even shakier when closer Drew Storen went down with an injury.
Tyler Clippard was solid in his stead, but he struggled a bit down the stretch. Storen is back and appears to be healthy, allowing just one run in his last 16 innings pitched.
St. Louis' bullpen was a positive surprise this year. Behind solid pitching from Mitchell Boggs, Edward Mujica and closer Jason Motte, the Cardinals had one of the better bullpens in the NL.
In the seven games the Nats and Cards have played this year, only three of them came down to bullpen decisions, with Washington coming out on top in all three.
Motte had a 2.75 ERA with 42 saves this season, while Storen had four saves and 10 holds in his injury-shortened campaign.
If Storen continues to perform like he did down the stretch in September, however, his role in the bullpen could be crucial for the Nationals.
4. Washington's NL-Best Record vs. St. Louis' September Hot Streak
Finishing with 98 wins on the season, the Nationals had a tremendous season.
At 88-74, the Cardinals wouldn't even have made it to postseason play if not for the MLB's addition of an extra wild-card team.
After starting September slowly, the Cards rebounded to win 13 of their last 17, including their Friday night win against the Atlanta Braves.
Hot streaks typically beat out regular-season records, but this may not be the case here.
The Nationals were consistent throughout the season, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs will be a big plus.
5. Bryce Harper vs. Cardinals Infield
Yadier Molina is a four-time defending Gold Glove winner at catcher. David Freese, last year's World Series MVP, has a fielding mark of 95 percent.
How aggressive will 19-year-old Bryce Harper be on the basepaths, and will his confidence be enough to carry him and his team in this series?
Harper's speed when he gets on could be enough to give the stout Cardinals defense trouble all game long.
More Players to Watch and Final Prediction
Freese hit .397 with 21 RBI for the Cardinals during last season's World Series campaign. He will need similar numbers if the Cardinals hope to repeat in 2012.
With another very strong season under his belt, the Cardinals will look for Molina to carry his momentum into the postseason.
On the season, he hit .315 with 22 home runs. His leadership and ability on offense and defense will be very important against Gio Gonzalez.
As part of a very strong bullpen, Boggs has a key role to play. He has a 2.21 ERA and 34 holds from the regular season as the setup man.
World Series veteran Jayson Werth needs to be a leader for this young Nationals team.
The team will need him to build on the power numbers of just five home runs and 31 RBI if they hope to go far in the postseason.
When Zimmerman gets on base, the Nationals normally find a way to drive him in. After hitting .282 on the season, Zimmerman also recorded 25 HR and 95 RBI.
The Cardinals may be hot, but the Nationals have a full season of consistency to back them up.
When it comes to the postseason, pitching wins championships. When you have the NL's best pitcher on your team, it bodes pretty well.
Nationals 5, Cardinals 3