NLCS preview: Cardinals, Nationals each try to keep their October magic going

The St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals weren’t really supposed to be here. But that’s why we watch October baseball, right? What you expect is going to happen is never a sure thing. The mega power — we’re looking at you this year, Dodgers — can get topped by a team that gets hot at the right time.

October magic has a way about it.

The Cardinals and the Nats, two postseason underdogs, are now battling for a chance to play in the World Series. The Dodgers and Braves, the presumptive NLCS matchup just a week ago, are both sitting at home. And now we’re left to wonder whether the deep and steady Cardinals or the starting-pitching-heavy Nationals can channel that magic into four more wins.

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Both teams battled to get here — with the Cardinals winning their division on the final weekend of the season and the Nationals playing out of the wild-card spot.

The Cardinals took the Braves to five games and crushed them in the decisive matchup. They found that a balanced attack worked. The middle of their order hit. Their starters got the job done. Their bullpen held steady through a few hiccups. There was no new-age October antics, just old-school run prevention and production.

The Nationals were a bit of the opposite. They took the Dodgers to five games, but they escaped the NLDS as much as they won it. They leaned on their strength, that trio of great starting pitchers, to make up for the weakness that is their bullpen. They got timely hits from middle-of-the-order bats like Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon, plus unexpected heroes like Howie Kendrick. Washington used all three of their top pitchers as starters and relievers against the Dodgers, which may not be sustainable in seven games, but it’s hard to blame manager Davey Martinez for finding a strategy that works for his squad.

The Nats have the edge in starting pitching, but the Cardinals’ edge in the bullpen is bigger. Lineups are close. The Nats were far more productive in the regular season, but the Cardinals have been blistering the ball so far in the postseason. This series could come down to which team’s bats stay hot.

Juan Soto and Yadier Molina are each trying to lead their teams to the World Series. (Getty Images)
Juan Soto and Yadier Molina are each trying to lead their teams to the World Series. (Getty Images)

Schedule

Game 1: Friday, Oct 11 in St. Louis, 8:08 p.m. ET (TBS)

Game 2: Saturday, Oct. 12 in St. Louis, 4:08 p.m ET (TBS)

Game 3: Monday, Oct. 14 in Washington, Time TBD (TBS)

Game 4: Tuesday, Oct. 15 in Washington, Time TBD (TBS)

Game 5*: Wednesday, Oct 16, in Washington, Time TBD (TBS)

Game 6*: Friday, Oct. 18 in St. Louis, Time TBD (TBS)

Game 7*: Saturday, Oct. 19 in St. Louis, Time TBD (TBS)
* if necessary

Previously

This will be the second postseason meeting between these franchises. The Cardinals got the upper hand in the 2012 NLDS, winning three games to two. In Game 5, the Cardinals scored four runs off Drew Storen in the ninth to complete the comeback from what was once a 6-0 deficit. St. Louis also won five of seven games during the regular season, which includes two victories against Max Scherzer.

Pitching matchups

Game 1: Anibal Sanchez vs. Miles Mikolas

Game 2: TBD vs. Adam Wainwright

Game 3: Jack Flaherty vs. TBD

Game 4: Dakota Hudson vs. TBD

Game 5*: TBD vs. TBD

Game 6*: TBD vs. TBD

Game 7*: TBD vs. TBD

Despite ace Jack Flaherty throwing over 100 pitches in the Cardinals’ runaway Game 5 win against Atlanta, the Cardinals’ rotation appears to be in much better shape than Washington’s heading into the NLCS. In fact, manager Mike Shildt has already set his pitching lineup through Game 4. Miles Mikolas will again get the ball in Game 1 after successful outings as a starter and reliever in the NLDS. Veteran Adam Wainwright will follow coming off his gem in NLDS Game 3. Then it will be Flaherty on full rest and Dakota Hudson. This would seemingly line Flaherty up for a potential Game 7.

Washington has some more sorting out to do with Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin all having made relief appearances during the postseason. Anibal Sanchez is locked in for Game 1. The veteran right-hander stymied the Dodgers in NLDS Game 3, limiting them to one run over five innings while striking out nine. Everything is up in the air beyond that point.

Marcell Ozuna was clutch for the Cardinals in the NLDS against the Braves. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)
Marcell Ozuna was clutch for the Cardinals in the NLDS against the Braves. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

Keys to victory for Cardinals

How will the Cardinals manufacture runs against Washington's starters? St. Louis finished the season 19th in runs scored and 24th in home runs, so it doesn't figure to be easy. Maximizing the opportunities they do get, as they did during their record-breaking 10-run first-inning in NLDS Game 5, could be the biggest key to their success.

The Cardinals need closer Carlos Martinez to get back on track. Martinez allowed three runs in two separate outings in the NLDS, but did encouragingly bounce back with a scoreless inning in Game 4. He’ll still be Mike Shildt’s guy in the ninth inning. He just needs to be better.

St. Louis needs Marcell Ozuna to stay red hot. Aside from Paul Goldschmidt, Ozuna has been the Cardinals’ most reliable source for offense in October with two homers and three doubles through five games. If Ozuna doesn’t hit well, the Cardinals’ offense will face an uphill battle.

Anibal Sanchez will be a key contributor for the Nats in the NLCS. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
Anibal Sanchez will be a key contributor for the Nats in the NLCS. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)

Keys to victory for Nationals

With the Nationals’ three aces being maxed out so far in October, it will be on Anibal Sanchez to step up. The veteran right-hander was up to the task against Los Angeles in the NLDS. Now though, he’ll be the series tone-setter in Game 1 on the road. Barring a sweep, Sanchez will almost certainly be needed later in the series as a starter or reliever. That makes him a vital cog in this series for Washington.

As always, all eyes will be on the Nationals bullpen. Manager Davey Martinez cannot continue relying so heavily on his starting pitchers to pick up relief innings and expect them all to survive October. Someone beyond Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle will have to step up to record some vital outs in this series.

The Nationals offense has centered around Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto all season long. That can't change now. The good news is both are rolling coming into the NLCS. Rendon is batting .500 (7-for-14) with a homer and five RBIs over his last four games, while Soto has smashed a pair of postseason homers and driven in six in October.

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