Nationals vs. Cardinals: Seven things to know and NLCS prediction for series between two historical opposites

The Washington Nationals visit the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night to kick off the 2019 NLCS. Despite having the better regular-season record, the Nationals are the road team in the series by virtue of making the postseason as a wild-card team. The Cardinals won the regular-season series 5-2, outscoring the Nationals 26-17. 

Let's talk about some more things to know about the series

1. These teams are historical opposites

In the history of the Nationals, they had never before advanced past the divisional round. The 1981 Expos did get to the NLCS, but I don't think we're going to mistake this franchise as historically great any time soon. This group has the chance to give Washington, D.C., the baseball feels it hasn't had since the 1924 Senators won the World Series. 

In St. Louis, this is old hat. Sure, the Cardinals missed the playoffs each of the past three seasons, but before an NLDS loss in 2015, the Cardinals had been to the NLCS in four straight seasons, a stretch that included two pennants and the 2011 World Series title. The Cardinals are second to the Yankees with 19 pennants and 11 World Series titles. They've now been to the NLCS 14 times. 

2. The Nats' aces will be a factor

  • Max Scherzer: 2.92 ERA, 157 ERA+, 243 strikeouts against 31 unintentional walks in 172 1/3 innings. 
  • Stephen Strasburg: 3.32 ERA, 138 ERA+, 251 strikeouts against 52 unintentional walks in 209 innings. 
  • Patrick Corbin: 3.25 ERA, 141 ERA+, 238 strikeouts against 68 unintentional walks in 202 innings. 

Strasburg and Scherzer were nails in the NLDS, too, and Corbin was excellent in relief in Game 5. The Nationals have a trio of aces. If this series goes seven games, the Cardinals have to deal with an ace in five or six of the seven (I would bet on six). That's a very tall order and Anibal Sanchez as the fourth starter isn't exactly a pushover, as he showed in NLDS Game 3 before the bullpen disaster. 

3. Cards could regret Flaherty decision

The Cardinals have one ace: Jack Flaherty. He was burnt in Game 5 despite the Cardinals having essentially sewn up the NLDS in the top of the first inning. I already wrote about the impact of Mike Shildt's decision and why I didn't like it

Even if you disagree, there's a simple reality here. The Cardinals don't get to start Flaherty until Game 3. They'll have to take it to Game 7 for him to have multiple starts in the series. Whereas the Cardinals would be facing an ace in four or five (again, I'd bet on five) of the first six games, the Nationals only will see Flaherty once in that span.

4. St. Louis owns bullpen advantage

This could be the Cardinals' saving grace. They need to work deep counts against the aces and get into the Nationals' bullpen. 

During the regular season, the Nationals' bullpen was the worst in baseball with a 5.66 ERA. Yes, they had a worse bullpen than the likes of the Orioles, Rockies, Royals and Marlins. Even the mess that was the Mets' bullpen was better. Meanwhile, the Cardinals' bullpen ERA was 3.82, good for fifth in the majors. They have a deep bullpen and that can really shorten a game. 

Back with the Nationals, other than Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, Dave Martinez doesn't really have anyone else in the bullpen that can be relied upon. During the division series and Wild Card Game, he mitigated that by using his three aces in relief at various points. Since they might have to go to seven games in this series, it seems extremely unlikely he can go that route without completely exhausting his starters. They will need some other relievers to step up or the eighth and ninth innings in these games for the Nationals could be ugly. 

5. The Nationals' running game vs. Molina

The Nats led the National League with 116 steals on the season (actually tied with the Cardinals!). Trea Turner had 35, Victor Robles (though he's hampered a bit by a hamstring injury) had 28, Adam Eaton had 15 and Juan Soto had 12. 

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina has long been one of the best in the biz at cutting down opposing base-runners. He has lost a bit now that he's hit age 37, but he still was better than league average during the regular season and Ronald Acuna found out the hard way he can still get it done in the NLDS: 

What a beauty. He had to pick it off a short-hop and still hosed the Braves' speedster. 

The Nationals didn't attempt a stolen base in the NLDS against the Dodgers, but that doesn't mean they've removed the club from their golf bag. The running game is definitely something to watch. 

6. Wainwright's playoff history

In Game 3, Adam Wainwright out-dueled Braves ace Mike Soroka only to see his bullpen blow the game. Still, he went 7 2/3 scoreless innings and his career numbers in the postseason are very impressive: 2.79 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 104 strikeouts, 17 walks in 96 2/3 innings. 

He has had a few duds, but overall Wainwright steps up when the lights are the brightest and the Cardinals need some of his postseason magic if they are going overcome the Nationals' trio of rotation studs. 

7. Nats have much more offensive firepower

Here's where each team ranked in the NL in some key offensive categories this season:

TeamRunsDoublesHome runsAverageOn-base percentageSlugging percentage

Cardinals

10th

13th

12th

11th

9th

12th

Nationals

2nd

6th

6th

1st

1st

3rd

The Cardinals were better in the second half by 37 OPS points, but that's not a ton and September was a worse offensive month than July and August. Marcell Ozuna and Paul Goldschmidt can be middle-order forces and Kolten Wong had great stretches of hitting, but Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon are better than anyone the Cardinals have at the plate and Howie Kendrick is having an amazing season, one that got even better with his NLDS-winning grand slam to beat the Dodgers. Turner is good at getting on base in front of the thunder. It's a major advantage for the Nats here. 

Prediction

The Cardinals are gonna grab a few games off the Nationals bullpen and by no means is an ace in a postseason start a sure thing, but I think the Nationals' relentless offense overwhelms them a few times and Scherzer/Strasburg/Corbin mostly do their jobs. Nationals in six and the Flaherty decision by Shildt becomes that much more glaring. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Snyder has been a baseball writer with CBS Sports since 2011. A member of the BBWAA, he's now covered every World Series since 2010. The former Indiana University baseball player now lives on the... Full Bio

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