The Cardinals and Nationals have tangled in October before, giving their respective fan bases different reasons for experiencing shortness of breath and coronary stress.
The St. Louis vs. Washington 2012 NLDS series was wacko. Game 5 was tedious, then delirious, as the Cardinals methodically removed the Nationals’ giblets in a stunning comeback from six runs down.
The Nationals battered Adam Wainwright — a lad of 31 at the time — and led 6-0 after three.
The Cardinals all but knocked down the Washington monument in winning 9-7.
“Surreal,” Cards’ prez John Mozeliak said at the time. “Just a surreal game.”
The Cards’ cool, cruel erasure of that 6-0 lead qualified as the largest ever by a MLB postseason team in a do-it-or-die scenario.
Celebrating in the visiting-team clubhouse, the Cardinals mixed champagne and beer, jubilance with disbelief.
“We were just exhausted after what happened,” Cardinals closer Jason Motte told me the next day, after the team had arrived in San Francisco in preparation for the 2012 NLCS. “Even during the celebration after the game, I looked around and people were like, ‘What in the heck is going on? Is this really happening right now?’ It was just crazy.”
When the Cardinals fell behind 6-0, I just assumed that their season was about to close, and I went online to book an early Saturday-morning flight home to St. Louis. A few hours later, I was scrambling to find a way to get to San Francisco in time for the Cardinals’ afternoon workout at the Giants’ ballpark the day before NLCS Game 1. No sleep, a pre-dawn flight from Baltimore to Detroit, then from Detroit to San Francisco. It was all a blur. But having witnessed that exhilarating sporting event, my head was buzzing with energy. This is why I got into sportswriting.
Looking back through the years, at times I forget a key fact: the Cardinals were actually down 7-5 going into the final at-bat. While rallying for four runs in the top of the ninth, the Cardinals were down to their last strike five times and survived to win the brawl.
Yessir, five times. Nats closer Drew Storen had had a chance to finish the Cardinals off five bleeping times — but the Cards stubbornly kept fending him off … Yadier Molina and David Freese, especially.
The Cardinals were the team that wouldn’t die.
God bless Pete Kozma.
And you too, Daniel Descalso.
For Wainwright, the frantic Friday evening of baseball — and extreme emotions — went from being a horror show to a funhouse. He felt as if he’d let his team down by putting the Cardinals in a 6-0 ditch. And then he joined the cheer squad in the Cards’ dugout as his teammates kept chipping away, chipping away. No one in there was yelling louder than Waino.
After the Game 5 madness, an emotional Wainwright addressed the players and staff. I What did he say?
“I told them all, ‘I’m just real proud to be a St. Louis Cardinal, and to be your teammate right now.’ That show of heart, and that show of fortitude right there? It was special for me to watch,” Waino said the next day, in San Francisco. “It was just special for the fans to watch. I was taken aback, and moved by what they’d done. I just felt I needed to tell the guys just what it meant to me, and a lot of people who love the Cardinals. This is an amazing team. Don’t ever doubt our hearts. Because we have heart.”
Seven years later, those words apply again.
Both of these teams have plenty of heart, and enough will to overcome just about anything. I’m a fan of watching the Cardinals and Nationals go about their business.
And Waino, age 38, is still starting, pitching, leading and setting the temperature for the Cardinals culture.
It’s been seven years … seven! … but that planet-shaking Game 5 was the natural, appropriate and somewhat overlooked sequel to the Cardinals’ epic Game 6 win over Texas in the 2011 World Series.
I doubt that the Nats and Cards can give us a rematch that lives up to one one of the most memorable postseason games played by either franchise. But they’ll give it a shot, and this matchup is filled with enticing possibilities.
Seven years later, the Nationals have finally won a division-round series — the first postseason series captured by a Washington-based MLB team since the immortal Walter Johnson pitched the Senators to the World Series title in 1924.
The Cardinals are back in the show after missing the postseason for the past three seasons. They’re competing in the NLCS for the first time since 2014. The five years in between seem like 25.
The Cardinals will prevail …
1. The rotation takes advantage of a favorable setup. If the series goes to the seven-game breaking point, the Cardinals would have four home games. And the four games at Busch Stadium would be would be started by Wainwright (Game 2, G6), Miles Mikolas (G1), and Jack Flaherty (G7.) The starters love pitching at home. The STL rotation crafted the second-best home ERA (3.00) in the majors this season. And the team’s starting-pitching ERA at home (2.73) was the best in the majors after the All-Star break.
2. The Cardinals can get into the Washington bullpen. Though performing better (but not great) in September, Nationals’ relievers came into the playoffs with the worst bullpen ERA, 5.68, in MLB history by a team that made the postseason. D.C. manager Dave Martinez reinforced the weakness by using starters Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin as relievers in the team’s first six postseason games. (The wild-card win over the Brewers, and the five-game upset over the Dodgers in the NLDS.)
Here’s the problem: deploying his big-three starters as relievers in the NLCS will be a more difficult challenge for Martinez. The crammed schedule in a seven-game format doesn’t offer much flexibility. Coming into this series Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin have pitched 67 percent of Washington’s total innings this postseason. During the regular season the fantastic trio covered 40.5 percent of all innings pitched. In other words: Washington’s true relief pitchers won’t be able to spend as much time in the background during the NLCS.
3. The Cardinals’ own bullpen is up to the challenge, especially Carlos Martinez. Can “El Gallo” be trusted? Is he focused and squared away? When Martinez pitches with a clear head, he’s formidable. That’s the No. 1 question. But don’t forget, entire STL bullpen had a disturbing 4.90 ERA in September. That may have been random; after all this team had the No. 6 bullpen ERA in the majors this season.
More likely the inflated ERA materialized due to fatigue. Giovanny Gallegos, in particular, hasn’t been as sharp. “Gio” and lefty Andrew Miller loom as huge factors in this series. One bit for you: in the NLDS victory over Atlanta, the Cardinals’ relievers other than Martinez combined for an 0.79 ERA.
4. The Cardinals continue to implement their strict policy on run prevention. They allowed the fewest runs game in the majors after the All-Star break, and ranked fifth overall and second in the NL in preventing runs over the full 162-game season. This consistent team strength was paramount in the NLDS taming of the Braves; the Cards allowed 3.04 runs per game and had a 2.60 ERA. It’s imperative to limit the potential damage inflicted by Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Ryan Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick.
5. The Cardinals offense doesn’t drift into a coma. You don’t need me to explain; we already know the names of the STL hitters that must be on point, and productive. No indexing is necessary. But the Cardinals will have multiple appointments with Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin. The at-bats must be smart and adaptable.
6. The Cards can hold their own in situational hitting. That’s a big if. And that applies to their pitchers too. During the regular season the Nationals were vastly superior to the Cardinals at pumping out timely hits with runners in scoring position.
For the season with RISP the Nats batted .279 with a .378 OBP and .508 slugging percentage with an .887 OPS. That’s simply outstanding. They were even better in the second half of the season: .311 average, .390 OBP, .560 slug, .950 OPS. Using park adjusted runs created (wRC+) the Nationals were 28 percent above the league average in hitting with RISP during the second half; among NL teams only the Dodgers were better. So the Cards pitchers have to find a way to slow Washington’s assembly line of big hits.
The Cardinals had a .736 OPS with RISP for the season; that ranked 14th among the 15 NL teams. And the Nationals’ .887 OPS with RISP was the best in the league. In the second half the Cards’ .721 OPS with RISP ranked 10th; the Nationals (.950) were No. 1 in the league.
7. The Cards play stellar defense. And their defensive showing should be more relevant in this series for a reason: relative to most MLB teams, the Nationals don’t strike out a lot. They had a low 19.4 percent strikeout rate in the second half. The Nats do take a healthy number of walks; their overall plate discipline is a true asset.
But the Nationals put the ball in play, and while they aren’t a heavy ground-ball team, they’ll be going against a STL pitching staff with high GB rate. The Cards were No. 2 in the majors this season in converting ground balls into outs. The Cardinals were third in the majors in defensive runs saved. If this is a long series, defense could swing a game or two.
There you go. Other aspects of this series intrigue me, but I wanted to list seven factors — only seven — because I believe this will be a seven-game NLCS.
With the Cardinals winning Game 7.
Thanks for reading … have a wonderful weekend …enjoy the NLCS at Busch Stadium.