On the list of unpredictable Major League Baseball Postseason series, few would have expected the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals to turn out the way the first two games have gone.
Yet here we are, after Gio Gonzalez couldn't find the strike zone in Game 1, and the Cardinals pounded Jordan Zimmerman in Game 2, with everything looking completely backwards tied at one game apiece heading into the always-crucial Game 3 on Wednesday.
This has been an impossible series to predict up to this point, but we at least understand what these teams do well enough to talk about what must happen for them to walk away with a victory.
Here are our keys to victory for both the Nationals and Cardinals in Game 3.
Quality starting pitching
All the talk around the Nationals after they shut Stephen Strasburg down was about how they should be fine because their rotation, particularly at the top, was so good.
Yet if the only two games you saw from the Nationals this season were the first two games of this series, you would never know it. Gio Gonzalez walked seven in five innings of work in Game 1, and Jordan Zimmerman got rocked for five runs on seven hits in three innings in Game 2.
Enter: Edwin Jackson.
Jackson, like Gonzalez, has the ability to dominate with a power arsenal that can make the best hitters look silly. But also like Gonzalez, Jackson has a knack for missing the strike zone quite frequently.
The Nationals do have a good bullpen, but they can't keep going four or five innings every single game.
Wake-up the bats
In addition to the starters struggling on the mound, the Nationals have scored just six runs in the first two games of the series. They have three extra-base hits, all coming in Game 2.
This is an offense that is built on power and strikeouts. They are not likely to rack up a lot of hits because they have so many free-swinging players throughout the lineup, so when they do get them, they need to make them count.
The Cardinals kept them in Game 1 by being unable to get a hit with runners on base. All that changed in Game 2, as the floodgates opened in a hurry.
The Nationals have struck out 24 times through the first two games. Another big number like that against Chris Carpenter will have them facing elimination on Thursday.
St. Louis Cardinals
Chris Carpenter to the rescue
Suddenly, the Cardinals' rotation looks a lot more vulnerable. Jaime Garcia is off the roster for at least the rest of the NLDS due to shoulder problems. Kyle Lohse did get hit around a bit in the Wild Card Game, but held the Braves in check enough to get a win.
Adam Wainwright was effectively wild in Game 1, striking out 10 but also allowing three walks and six hits in 5.2 innings.
Carpenter is the great unknown in this series. A hero for the Cardinals last October, he has only pitched 17 innings this season.
Given how much the Cardinals have had to rely on Lance Lynn already, they need a good start from Carpenter in this game. They do have Shelby Miller on the roster thanks to Garcia's injury, so he can be used in long relief, if necessary.
But Carpenter is the one pitcher that the Cardinals trust above anyone else, and they need him to pitch well in this game.
We all knew that the Cardinals had the potential to put up a lot of runs in a short amount of time, but the second half has not been particularly kind to them.
Those problems lingered in Game 1, as they could only muster two runs despite having eight base runners in the first five innings against Gonzalez.
Game 2 saw the bats come to life in a big way. They put up 12 runs, including two home runs from Carlos Beltran. He scuffled badly after the All-Star break, hitting just .236/.302/.440. If he starts hitting alongside David Freese and Allen Craig, this offense can be lethal.
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