What do you get when the defending World Series champions and the team with the best record in Major League Baseball meet in a National League Division Series? Aside from the obvious, which is the St. Louis Cardinals hosting the Washington Nationals, there is high drama all over the place.
While we could spend hours dissecting the entire series, there will be ample time for that. Instead, we want to pay close attention to Game 1 on Sunday afternoon.
The Cardinals are behind the eight ball a bit as this series begins, having already played a somewhat controversial game against Atlanta on Friday, but they have arguably their best pitcher, Adam Wainwright, on the mound against Cy Young contender Gio Gonzalez.
That is just one of the storylines to watch for as we get set for first pitch. Here are the keys to victory for both teams in Game 1 of the NLDS between the Nationals and Cardinals.
Keys for Nationals
First inning for Gonzalez; the long ball is your friend; attack Wainwright early
For Gio Gonzalez, this was the year that solidified his status as a top-of-the-rotation starter. He is a top contender for the National League Cy Young Award thanks to a 21-8 record, 2.89 ERA, 207 strikeouts and 149 hits and nine home runs allowed in 199.1 innings pitched.
However, the first inning has given Gonzalez some problems this season. He has allowed 12 earned runs and 25 hits in 118 at-bats in the first inning in 2012. His stuff, as everyone knows, can be electric, but the command and control can come and go. His 76 walks were sixth-most in the National League.
If Gonzalez struggles to find the zone right out of the gate, the Cardinals are more than capable of putting up a crooked number right out of the gate. The Cardinals finished second in the NL in runs scored (765) and first in on-base percentage (.338).
That patience could serve them well if Gonzalez isn't right in the first inning.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Nationals have two things going for them offensively. One: They are a team that hits a lot of home runs. They finished second in the NL with 194 home runs and fifth in runs (731) despite an OK .322 team on-base percentage.
That power is going to be their saving grace, because they aren't a team that will wait on a pitch. They have a lot of aggressive hitters, like Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond and Michael Morse, but those are three players who have good power.
This leads to the second thing the Nationals have going for them: Adam Wainwright. By no means is Wainwright a scrub. In fact, what he was able to do this season just one year removed from Tommy John surgery speaks to how much talent he has and how hard he worked to get back.
However—and this is always the case with Tommy John pitchers—consistency can be problematic. Wainwright has walked 52 hitters in 198.2 innings this season, but 14 of them have come in his last 32.2 innings.
There could be some fatigue setting in for Wainwright after the year-long layoff, which could lead to his breaking ball not having as much snap or his fastball being left up and over the heart of the plate.
If Wainwright can't find himself early, the Nationals are more than capable of teeing off on him and getting to a sketchy Cardinals relief corps.
Keys for Cardinals
Exploit Nationals' aggressiveness; use patience to force Gonzalez to beat them
There are two schools of thought on aggressiveness. Some people like it because they want to see players out there going after the first thing they like—be it a pitch they feel they can drive or a base they can steal or take.
Others will tell you that eventually that aggressive nature will catch up to you because you need to wait for the pitcher to make a mistake. Teams can be both selective and aggressive, but it takes a special group with a certain kind of talent to do that.
The Cardinals would fall into the patient category, though they have such depth in the lineup, both with power and baserunning ability, that they can play like a very aggressive team ready to capitalize on mistakes.
They walked 533 times as a team during the regular season, good for fourth in the National League. They only hit 159 home runs, so they are not going to bash the ball, though they do have players capable of driving it out.
Instead, they are going to wait for Gonzalez to give them something to hit. If he does, they are going to tee off on it. If he doesn't, they are more than happy to wait back and take pitches until they get something or walk.
The Nationals are a much more aggressive team that throws caution to the wind. They are going to hit a lot of home runs, but they are also going to strike out a lot. They finished third in the NL with 1,325 strikeouts, fewer than only Houston (1,365) and Pittsburgh (1,354).
I should also mention the defense for both of these teams. There is a vast discrepancy between these two teams with the glove. According to FanGraphs, the Cardinals saved 13 runs on defense, while the Nationals gave up 13 runs defensively.
Of course, using the same metrics, the Cardinals had a UZR of minus-20.4 and the Nationals were at 8.7.
Certainly, these are not two elite defensive clubs, though I do think that the Cardinals are better overall when you go position by position.
We saw how critical defense was in that Wild Card Game the Cardinals played against Atlanta. While there is not the same pressure in this kind of environment since you have at least three games, you can't afford to throw one away because of bad defense.
So Who Has the Edge?
In a one-game situation, I do like the Cardinals a little bit more than the Nationals. Gonzalez could be the great equalizer, especially since the Cardinals have been so hot-and-cold offensively in the second half.
But top to bottom, I believe the Cardinals are better suited to come out on top, at least in Game 1 of the series. Wainwright does have some issues that could cost him, but I like him being able to take advantage of a young and very impatient Nationals lineup.