St. Louis and Atlanta. Here we go again. For the fourth time, the Cardinals and Braves will play in the post-season, and the Cardinals have a pretty distinct edge…so far. In 1982, the Cards swept Atlanta in a best-of-five NLCS, thanks to a rainout that ended a Phil Niekro shutout in game one. In Tony LaRussa’s first year at the helm of the Cardinals, 1996, the Cards took a commanding 3-1 lead in another NLCS before the Braves won three in a row by a combined score of 32-1. What could have been a Cardinal-Yankee World Series between Joe Torre and the team that had fired him the year before became a Braves-Yankees World Series that saw Torre face a team that had fired him twelve years before.
The 2000 NLDS matchup is remembered most for Rick Ankiel’s meltdown in game one and Cardinal fans taking over Turner Field. The Cardinals dominated in another 3-0 whitewash of the Braves. And in 2012, the Cardinals played the famous “infield fly rule game” at Turner Field and won the wild card with a 6-3 win. With runners at first and second and one out in the eighth inning, Atlanta’s Andrelton Simmons hit a flyball into short left field. Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma ventured out and appeared to be called off by Matt Holliday and the ball dropped. But umpire Sam Holbrook had called for the infield fly rule, so the batter was called out and the Braves were furious. The game ended 6-3 Cardinals.
On Thursday at SunTrust Park, the Cards will face a 97-win Braves team that’s dealing with some injuries. MVP candidate Freddie Freeman has a bone spur in his right elbow and hasn’t homered since September first. All World outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. missed the last four games with a groin injury, and regular center fielder Ender Inciarte is out for the series with a hamstring injury.
Even with all that, third baseman Josh Donaldson has been fantastic this year with 37 homers, 94 RBI and a .900 OPS. Second baseman Ozzie Albies led the league in hits and games played, and committed just four errors. Rookie Austin Riley is a threat who cooled off in the second half, and the catching tandem of Tyler Flowers and Brian McCann combined for 23 homers and 79 RBI.
Atlanta’s pitching is fine. Their starters had a 3.86 ERA in September, and everyone was pretty good. Dallas Keuchel had a 5-0 run with an 0.97 ERA, but closed out with three straight losses and a 6.19 ERA in those games. He does have a post-season pedigree though, and like any lefty will be tough on the Cardinals in the post-season. Mike Soroka was terrific all season, going 13-4 with a 2.60. Rookie lefty Max Fried was 17-6, and Julio Teheran is always tough on St. Louis.
If Atlanta has a weakness, it’s their bullpen. Despite being rebuilt by General Manager Alex Anthopolous at the trade deadline, Braves relievers spent September pitching to a 3.43 ERA, but in August the same group allowed 111 hits in 92 innings and had a 4.89 ERA. Which Braves bullpen will we see in the NLDS?
Like Mike Shildt, Braves manager Brian Snitker is a quintessential organizational guy. He’s spent 43 years in the Atlanta system and last year won N.L. manager of the year honors. He doesn’t get outmanaged by anyone.
If the series goes five games, Jack Flaherty will get two starts for the Cardinals. He’s the dominant performer in this series, and would be the key if the Cards can get to a fifth game. That means they’d have to get a winning performance out of Dakota Hudson, Adam Wainwright or Miles Mikolas in one of the other games, assuming Flaherty can pitch the Cards to a game two win.
Once we get to the post-season, starting pitching is key. And with the injuries to Atlanta’s lineup, perhaps the Cards’ ability to manufacture a run will get them some wins. After a three-year absence, it’s good for St. Louis to be back in the playoffs, and it’s good to see two of the dominant franchises in the league for the last 23 seasons meeting again. Braves Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine had below .500 records in the post-season. And the Cardinals two best teams since Bill DeWitt took over in ’96, the ’04 and ’05 editions, didn’t win the World Series. But we can reasonably argue that the two least impressive playoff teams in that stretch won the World Series in 2006 and 2011.
As we’ve learned in the past, once the baseball playoffs start, you never know.