2012 NLDS: Who Has the Edge in Nationals vs. Cardinals Game 5?

Dan KuklaCorrespondent IIIOctober 11, 2012

2012 NLDS: Who Has the Edge in Nationals vs. Cardinals Game 5?

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    A walk-off home run by Jayson Werth sent the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals into a Game 5 elimination set for Friday night.

    The winner faces the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS after their historic comeback from an 0-2 deficit against the Cincinnati Reds—the first National League team ever to do so in a five-game divisional series. The loser goes home for the winter.

    So far, St. Louis has kept true to its traditional form. The Cardinals again lost Game 1 before rallying back into contention. Both wins came via blowouts. Both losses came in tight, one-run games. Nothing here is new.

    The series was pitched as experience versus new power—the gritty old veterans against the young upstarts. Game 5 will be no different.

    Here's a full breakdown of the elimination battle between the defending World Champions and their ambitious challengers.

Adam Wainwright vs. Gio Gonzalez

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    Game 5 features an epic battle between staff aces. Well, sort of.

    Everyone looked to Adam Wainwright as the best pitcher in the Cardinals rotation after Chris Carpenter's injury. Kyle Lohse has actually performed better over the course of the season. You can make the case for any one of these three as the true staff ace.

    The Stephen Strasburg saga has been covered from every angle. Although Washington entered the postseason without the young phenom, Gio Gonzalez has pitched more than well enough all season to earn the "ace" tag himself.

    Wainwright and Gonzalez faced each other in Game 1, a contest won 3-2 by the Nationals. Washington scored on Wainwright early before St. Louis responded with two against Gonzalez. Neither pitcher earned the win, which went to Ryan Mattheus.

    Gonzalez looked like the stronger arm heading into the postseason. With all respect to Wainwright, it really wasn't that close.

    But Gonzalez's lack of postseason experience showed in Game 1. He labored through 110 pitches over just five innings. Only 59 of those went for strikes. The aggressive Cardinal hitters showed great patience while working the count and drawing seven walks.

    If Gonzalez felt the postseason pressure in Game 1, he's going to be even more burdened by the ever higher stakes of a Game 5 elimination. He's been the better pitcher by far this season, but the edge here has to go to Wainwright and all of his big-game experience.

    Advantage: St. Louis Cardinals

Bullpens

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    The Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals both feel like getting through to the sixth inning with a lead is all it will take to advance into the NLCS.

    Bridging the gap from starters to stud closer Jason Motte was once a perilous adventure for St. Louis. Manager Mike Matheny struggled early on to find reliable options in middle relief. Discovering the shutdown combo of Edward Mujica in the seventh and Mitchell Boggs in the eighth played a huge role in securing the second and final wild-card spot.

    The Mujica-Boggs-Motte sequence has carried the Cardinals through through September and into October. Lefty Mark Rzepczynski can help at any time as well. Lying in the wings is flamethrower Trevor Rosenthal, who consistently touches the upper 90s and even 100 mph on the radar gun.

    Top prospect Shelby Miller, quality start machine Joe Kelly and 18-game winner Lance Lynn can all handle long relief if a starter struggles or the game drags on late into extra innings.

    This stacked pen would provide an advantage for St. Louis over most teams, but not Washington. Drew Storen's strong return from injury allows the Nats to deploy Tyler Clippard at any point for any late-inning jam.

    While the Cardinal relievers stick to defined roles, Clippard's only role is shutting down the opposition. He combined with Storen and Game 2 starter Jordan Zimmermann to strike out eight consecutive batters in Game 4.

    St. Louis has better bullpen depth, but that doesn't matter as much in a one-game, winner-takes-all scenario. The Cardinals' core trio at the end of games is good, but it's not bulletproof. Losing in the ninth inning Thursday night will only feed Washington's late-game confidence—not that it needs any after such a dominant performance by its own pen.

    Advantage: Washington Nationals

Offense

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    Looking at just the numbers produced by these two lineups without any names revealed might make you think this is an American League Division Series.

    Both the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals feature American League-style lineups that are dangerous from top to bottom. Even many of the pitchers—Game 5 starter Adam Wainwright included—pose a threat at the plate, as shown by Chris Carpenter's two-hit performance in Game 3, where he missed a home run by less than a foot.

    St. Louis featured five hitters with at least 20 home runs: Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, David Freese and Yadier Molina. Beltran's resurgence and Craig's breakout has made the absence of Albert Pujols hardly noticable.

    The Cardinals finished second among National League teams in runs scored and batting average. They led all MLB teams in on-base percentage. Even Pete Kozma—a late call-up for defensive purposes—is getting in on the action. Daniel Descalso always seems to come through with a clutch hit as well.

    Washington leads off with Game 4 hero Jayson Werth, who flashed his power with a walk-off home run against Lance Lynn. That's just the beginning. Then comes the power-packed quadruplet of Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse. And middle infielders Ian Desmond and Danny Espinsoa pack plenty of punch in their own right.

    The Nationals hit six homers in consecutive games against the Chicago Cubs before mashing four more in the getaway game. They finished second among NL teams in round trips during the regular season.

    These were the top two teams in run differential during the regular season. There's not much difference between them.

    Advantage: Push

Defense

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    Washington is the better defensive team as a whole, but St. Louis features the better individual defenders.

    Jon Jay's spectacular catch in Game 2 was just his most recent highlight of many web gems this season in center field. Those watching this young star for the first time probably lost a few teeth as their jaws hit the floor. Cardinal fans, however, all but expected him to make the play.

    Yadier Molina needs no introduction. The four-time Gold Glove winner shuts down any team daring enough to even try to run on him. Most are smart enough to stay put. Others don't even get the chance because he picks them off at first.

    Outside of these two defensive stars, however, St. Louis is rather average in the field. Spots like the corner outfielders can even be liabilities with the glove. David Freese can make all the necessary plays at the hot corner. Although Pete Kozma has been making a name for himself with his surprising bat, he earned the everyday job after Rafael Furcal's injury because of his defense. But the Cardinals made more than 100 errors as a team and rank in the bottom third of MLB teams in fielding percentage.

    The Nationals, by contrast, committed the league's fourth-fewest errors and ranked fourth in fielding percentage.

    Jay or Molina can easily make an impact play on defense that swings the outcome of Game 5. But if you could only choose one or the other, you're taking Washington's team D.

    Advantage: Washington

Prediction

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    On paper, the Washington Nationals are the clear favorite. They earned the most regular-season wins in MLB for plenty of good reason.

    But this isn't the regular season anymore. It's not even a series anymore.

    This is Game 5. It's an elimination game in October. The St. Louis Cardinals do pretty well in these types of situations.

    Saying the Cardinals will win just because they have more experience is lazy analysis. I'm not picking them here just because they have more World Series titles than any National League team and the Washington Nationals just earned the first postseason win in the District of Columbia since 1933.

    St. Louis isn't just experienced—it's proven. The Cardinals won an elimination game against Kris Medlen and the Atlanta Braves. They staved off elimination in Games 6 and 7 of the 2011 World Series against the Texas Rangers and Games 4 and 5 of the 2011 NLDS against the Philadelphia Phillies. They won an elimination game on the last day of the 2011 regular season, not to mention all the other games they won just to get into that position.

    The only thing that makes me nervous about picking St. Louis here is its record in close games this year (21-26 in one-run games, 0-2 this postseason). This same pitching matchup went down to the wire in Game 1, and I expect that to happen again Friday night. But this team's history when facing elimination is too good to ignore.

    Pick: St. Louis Cardinals 4, Washington Nationals 2

    You Make The Call: Leave your own Game 5 predictions in the comments. Provide your logic and keep it clean. No one can predict the future. We're all just guessing here. Disagreement is expected. Debate is encouraged. Just don't use an anonymous account name as a means to say something you wouldn't say to someone's face.


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