Wednesday was a wild day for baseball, with two Game 5 upsets going down in very different fashions. The first game of the day was basically over as soon as it started, with the Cardinals taking a ten-run lead over the Braves in the first inning and never looking back. I was listening to Atlanta’s radio broadcast and it was, shall we say, not a particularly fun experience.
It happened innocuously enough with a walk and then a sacrifice bunt, but that would be the only out recorded until a popup by the 10th batter of the inning. The ten runs scored involved an error by Gold Glove first baseman Freddie Freeman, a dropped third strike and an intentional walk. There was nary a home run in sight. But you add all that up and the Braves set the record for the most runs allowed in the first season of a postseason game and tied the record for the most runs allowed in any postseason game. No one saw this coming, but come it did.
The Dodgers-Nationals game was a much tauter affair, even if it didn’t feel like it would be after Los Angeles jumped out to a 3-run lead by the second inning and you could feel the vice tightening and the Nationals’ postseason woes continuing. But some timely hitting and perfect pitching from that point on the part of the Nats, combined with some questionable management decisions by Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts sealed the deal for Washington.
Perhaps Roberts shouldn’t have left Walker Buehler in for 117 pitches and only removed him after he hit a batter and walked a batter. Perhaps Roberts should have gone to his well rested and fully capable bullpen rather than putting in Clayton Kershaw, who has had a myriad of issues in the first inning this year and gave up back-to-back home runs to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto to tie the game in the 8th.
We could write a whole article about Clayton Kershaw’s postseason legacy (and how it’s mostly a heaping helping of malarkey), but rather than lean into ennui, let’s focus on the positive and the team that’s moving on. It was sublimely refreshing to see ex-Dodger Howie Kendrick, who had three errors in the series, redeem himself with an extra innings grand slam that pushed the Nationals into their first ever postseason series win and first NLCS appearance. Washington’s inability to make it out of the first round of the postseason when they had Bryce Harper had become a tired trope and, well, they did it the first year after he left, although you will have to look elsewhere if you want a hot take on that.
While the grand slam was the singular moment, we probably should talk about the other main ingredient, the Nationals pitching. Patrick Corbin had some issues in his first relief appearance and allowed 6 runs in 0.2 innings to blow Game 3, but had a great start in Game 1 (1 ER in 6 IP) and was excellent out of the bullpen in Game 5. He, along with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg combined to throw 28 of the 45 innings in the NLDS.
Given manager Dave Martinez’s heavy usage of his top-three in the first round, we’re not sure how he’s going to arrange things for the NLCS just yet. We’ll likely see Aníbal Sánchez, who limited the Dodgers to one run over five innings in Game 3, perhaps to start Game 1 tomorrow before returning to his regularly scheduled top-three. But Martinez’s use of those three, and especially Corbin, may go a long way to dictating how the series plays out. He only deployed ten pitchers in the whole series and three of those pitchers certainly demonstrated just how shaky Washington’s bullpen is: Hunter Strickland (4 ER in 2 IP), Wander (1 ER in 0.1 IP) and Tanner Rainey (2 ER in 2 IP). The sole saving grace in the bullpen has been Daniel Hudson, who has a 2.47 ERA/3.97 FIP on the season and has yet to give up a run over 2.2 innings.
The 2-3-2 format of the NLCS means the off days are less of a godsend to a manager looking to lean on his rotation for relief. Washington’s lack of reliable relievers and Martinez’s ability to successfully use his starters out of the bullpen is a major storyline to watch in this series.
The Cardinals may not have a top-three quite as fearsome as Washington’s, but they do have the singular Jack Flaherty, who was the best pitcher in baseball in the second half of the season. While Flaherty got the win in Game 5, manager Mike Shildt made the seemingly inexplicable decision to let Flaherty throw 104 pitches, despite the fact that the game was all but over after the first inning. That means that Flaherty won’t be available until Game 3. But Adam Wainwright (0.00 ERA in 7.2 IP) and Miles Mikolas (1.50 ERA in 6 IP) were both excellent and Dakota Hudson (1.93 ERA in 4.2 IP) availed himself quite nicely in his first postseason start. While the Nationals’ rotation certainly looks better on paper and got it done against the best offense in the NL, the Cardinals rotation is nothing to scoff at and put away the second-best offense in the Senior Circuit.
The Cardinals also get the edge in the bullpen department, as they only had one reliever really struggle. Closer Carlos Martínez had a very rough NLDS, giving up three runs with a four-run lead in Game 1 and another three runs to blow a 1-0 lead in Game 3, and now has a 16.20 ERA over his 3.1 innings of work this postseason. But no one else struggled the way the Nats’ bullpen did. While Cardinals relievers weren’t so hot down the stretch this season, their .365 SLG against was the best mark in baseball this season, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that they mostly limited the damage in the first round.
On the offensive side, Washington’s Rendon and Soto demonstrated just how much damage they can do in the heart of the order, hitting .412/.455/.765 and .278/.409/.611 respectively. I described Kendrick as a “secret weapon” in my NLDS preview, and that turned out to be true over all. The Nationals rolled out a fairly well balanced lineup in the Division Series, as well, with only Kendrick (.686) and Adam Eaton (.568) the only batters to accumulate more than 10 ABs and post an OPS less than .700.
The Cardinals only hit 210 home runs in 2019, good for 25th in MLB. That turned out not to matter in Game 5, as they were able to small-ball the Braves into the wilderness.
Paul Goldschmidt was my pick for the x-factor going into the series, and he delivered, hitting .429/.478/.905 with two home runs. Both he and Marcell Ozuna (.429/.478/.857) lived up to their pedigree over this series, with rookie Tommy Edman’s postseason coming out party (.316/.381/.579) also a smashing success.
While the Cardinals’ lineup was pretty meh during the regular season (95 wRC+, 15th in MLB), Goldschmidt and Ozuna remaining hot for the rest of the month, which would be entirely unsurprising given who we’re talking about, will go a long way in determining just how far the Cardinals can go. Unlike with the Nationals, there were quite a few holes in St. Louis’s lineup in the first round, specifically Dexter Fowler (.091/.167 /.136), Yadier Molina (.143/.174/.143) and Harrison Bader (.200/.200/.200).
I guess this is the point in time where I’m supposed to make a prediction, although it should be noted that I’m batting .200 in the postseason right now. Washington is the better team over 162 games, but, as both of the National League Division Series demonstrate, that is not what the postseason is all about. It’s a sprint now, not a marathon. Washington certainly has the edge on offense and, on paper, the rotation. But their rotation strength is going to be tested by their lack of a bullpen, an area where the Cardinals certainly get the nod. What’s going to happen in a seven game series? I really don’t know. The longer the series goes on, the more it might seem to tilt in the Cardinals favor because of the pitching. But you can’t ignore the fact that Washington’s offense is also better on paper and was better in the first round against the best team in the NL.
Pick: Washington in 6