Denying the St. Louis Cardinals their rightful playoff destiny isn’t generally a wise move.
They were the ultimate underdog story in 2011 by erasing a double-digit lead late in the season, only to barely make the postseason and then rampage through their opponents to a World Series title.
In 2012, MLB placed the Cardinals in an unappealing position within the new wild-card format.
They then advanced past that unenviable one-and-done playoff scenario by breaking though a veritable brick wall. The Cards overcame Kris Medlen and the Braves’ MLB record of 23 straight wins in games in which he started.
Those who gave the nod to Atlanta in that one-game series were sorely mistaken—myself very much included.
But let’s throw by the wayside those otherworldly destinies affecting the baseball world for just a bit. St. Louis is primed to advance to the NLCS for a few logical reasons.
Experience—The Meaningful Kind
First of all, the Cardinals have been there and done that—their postseason experience should not be devalued.
Other than shortstop Pete Kozma and Carlos Beltran, every starting Cardinals position player was on last season’s World Series squad. Some even have more extensive experience in the past playoff series.
And to be fair, Kozma’s backup Daniel Descalso won a ring last year as well.
The same applies to the starting rotation, closer and top set-up men for St. Louis. Closer Jason Motte, in particular, recorded five saves and a 2.19 ERA on the world’s biggest stage in 2011.
The knowledge of postseason nuances and the experience of winning as the underdog is a deadly combination.
As for the Washington Nationals, the same track record does not reveal itself.
Six out of the eight starting position players are first-timers in October baseball. Jason Werth and Adam LaRoche are the only two that can provide some guidance.
Pitching-wise, Wednesday’s starter, Edwin Jackson, threw Game 4 for the Cardinals in 2011. He did so in a losing, seven-walk effort.
Reliever Mike Gonzalez registered three innings in last year’s WS for the Rangers, but did not fare well either.
Point being, the Nationals were supposed to be good during the regular season, and they knew it. The playoffs, though, are a completely different animal.
It’s not like the youthful Oakland A’s, who were never supposed to be any good, and now have nothing to lose because of their already impossible achievements.
Washington has everything to lose—especially since they’re an overwhelming favorite over St. Louis.
It also doesn’t help that they left their most important player off the postseason roster.
The Domino Effect of a 160-Inning Detriment
The never-ending debate over Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit will rage on whether or not Washington is in the postseason.
As long as they’re on the losing side of things—which will continue for the next two games—it’s going to get real ugly.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo made a controversial decision well before the season began, and long before he knew his team would be playing October baseball.
He decided that Strasburg, his 24-year-old franchise pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery, would operate within the parameters of a 160-180-innings pitch limit. He would not risk the long-term health of the face of the franchise, and would take full responsibility in doing so.
When Strasburg approached that manufactured cutoff point, a host of fans and outside observers clamored for the Nationals to stagger his outings so he’d be available for the playoffs.
But Rizzo and the team held their ground, and Strasburg saw his 2012 season come to an end after 159.1 innings.
Now, the Washington Nationals are deadlocked—and rather lucky to be so—at 1-1 with the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. They’re fortunate because their de facto ace, 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez, walked seven and gave up two runs in just five innings. The Nationals won despite his poor day on the mound.
Jordan Zimmerman put them in an even a bigger hole in Game 2. He surrendered five runs in a mere three innings as the Cardinals stomped their way to a series-tying win.
These ineffective performances by normally stellar pitchers reveal a couple ominous things. They are indicative of both inexperience-induced jitters and the pressure of pitching without their true ace when it matters most.
Furthermore, toeing the rubber on Wednesday is Edwin Jackson. This is where pitching matchups pose a huge problem for the Nationals.
Former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter takes the mound for the Cardinals. The 6’6’’ hurler is 9-2 with a 3.02 ERA in his career in the postseason. Most notably, those numbers include his 4-0 record and his Game 7-winning outing in the 2011 World Series.
Who will be the most valuable remaining Cardinals starter?
Again, Jackson came up short last year on the same stage. Worse yet, he surrendered eight earned runs in just 1.1 innings in his last start against his former club.
The edge goes to Carpenter in this matchup.
In Game 4, the Cardinals Kyle Lohse opposes Ross Detwiler for the Nationals.
Lohse bested the otherwise unbeatable Kris Medlen less than a week ago in the one-game playoff against the Braves. He pitched effectively to the tune of six strikeouts and two runs allowed in 5.2 innings for the win.
The 26-year-old Detwiler, on the other hand, is a neophyte to the experience of postseason baseball. He won 10 games and recorded a respectable 3.40 ERA on the year, but the big game has eluded him so far in his career
To the Nationals' credit, Lohse will have to leave his regrettable 2011 playoff numbers in the past in order to secure the series for the Cardinals. At the end of the day, though, Lohse will push forward successfully with a short memory.
And to the Cardinals benefit, that will amount to a series win and trip to the National League Championship Series.
Shutting down Strasburg, eh?
Only time will tell if that was the right call.
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