The St. Louis Cardinals (10-8, 1/2 game back) conclude their East Coast road trip with a three games series against the Washington Nationals (10-8, 3 games back). The last time these two teams met was in the 2012 National League Divisional Series, with the Cardinals coming from behind to win a thrilling game five. The Cardinals hope to repeat some of that magic while the Nationals want to show that was just a step in the development of a perennial contender.
How they got here
After losing their opening series in Arizona, the Cardinals won their next three series (San Francisco, Cincinnati and Milwaukee) and then split the last two, including a fortunate rainout in Pittsburgh. The Cardinals are winning on the strength of their starting pitching and timely, if inconsistent, hitting. In fact, the starters have been so good, and the Cardinals ability to hit with runners in scoring position so frequent that neither of these is really sustainable. It has been fun to watch, but not a good indicator of what to expect each game.
Fortunately, there is another aspect of the Cardinals game which is not expected to continue, and that is the lack of success in the bullpen. Manager, Mike Matheny, continues to have trouble finding the magic sequence of relievers in the absence of closer, Jason Motte, leading many to speculate about a trade or possible minor league promotion.
Washington enters this series feasting on weaker teams (Miami and Chicago White Sox) while struggling with teams at the top of the division (Atlanta, New York Mets, Cincinnati). Starting pitching has been something of a tale of extremes as well, either being very good (Ross Detwiler, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg) or quite the opposite (Dan Haren, Gio Gonzalez).
As with the Cardinals, the Nationals bullpen has been inconsistent. Over the winter, Washington added some depth by signing former Yankees and Rays closer, Rafael Soriano. That move allows manager, Davey Johnson, to use both Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen in the important setup role, giving them a very formidable late inning bullpen. Unfortunately, all three have struggled so far this season. The Nationals bullpen is also heavily biased to the right side, having only one left handed reliever, Zach Duke. That is somewhat offset by having a pair of lefties in the starting rotation, but does play into the strength of the Cardinals bench in the late innings.
Unlike the Cardinals, the heart of the Washington batting order is getting it done, with Bryce Harper leading the charge (.369 / .31 / .738, 3 doubles, 7 home runs, 14 RBIs). If there is a weakness, some of the big Washington bats can be prone to strike out, and the Cardinals pitchers are 4th in the NL in strikeouts. Washington will face the top 3 strikeout pitchers in Shelby Miller, Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia.
On paper, this matchup should favor the Cardinals, just slightly. We have learned that games are actually played on the field and not on paper, so anything can happen. There are some intriguing matchups that should make for a very exciting series. Both teams expect to see post-season play, so this could be a precursor to another interesting playoff series.
Monday, April 22 – 6:05pm CDT
Could we ask for a better matchup to start this series ?
Former Cardinals prospect, Dan Haren, looks to turn around a rough start to his 2013 season. He has not made it past the fifth inning in any of his previous three starts. Haren has been around the plate, but not fooling opposing hitters, who are averaging 2 hits per inning. Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina have hit Haren in the past, and 2 of Matt Holliday’s six hits have left the ballpark.
Shelby Miller has been impressive so far in his rookie season. He has shown an impressive fastball with late movement. His curveball is much improved and has gotten him out of a few early season jams.
TV: Fox Sports Midwest, MLB.tv (out of market)
Tuesday, April 23 – 6:05pm CDT
For the Cardinals, Adam Wainwright is looking every bit like the pre-Tommy John Cy Young candidate we saw in 2009 and 2010, and them some. The velocity has returned to his fastball, and he is able to get his cutter over for strikes. Do we even have to mention the curveball ?
On the other side of the diamond, St. Louis native, Ross Detwiler has been exceptional. He should be 3-0 on the season, with his bullpen costing him a pair of wins. The big lefty should easily handle the left side of the Cardinals batting order. The Cardinals have gotten exactly two extra base hits off Detwiler in his brief career.
This has the makings of a 2-1 game, played in under two hours. Which means that it will be another of those 10-8 slugfests that goes on well into the night.
TV: Fox Sports Midwest, MLB Network, MLB.tv (out of market)
Wednesday, April 24 – 12:05pm CDT
After a brilliant start to the season (7IP, 3h, no runs), Strasburg has run into a bit of trouble. Pitch count has forced an early exit in his last three starts (all losses), and he has been hit hard, giving up 3 home runs in his last two. He is still Stephen Strasburg and capable of going out there and throwing a 2 or 3 hitter, so Cardinals batters need to be patient. Strasburg has only allowed two hits to players on the current roster, both to Matt Holliday.
Garcia has been the exact opposite of Strasburg, pitching brilliantly in three of his four starts. The last, well, the less we talk about it, the better. Garcia has had trouble in Washington, and tends to pitch better at night than during the day. Not a good combination. To make matters a bit worse, the current roster of Nationals looks like Murderer’s Row against Garcia.
This could be a very interesting and entertaining game.
TV: Fox Sports Midwest, MLB Network, MLB.tv (out of market)
Bryce Harper is on fire. Whether you like him or not, you have to marvel at the start of his sophomore season. He is hitting for average and power, and doing so consistently. Jaime Garcia has held him in check, but he has torched Adam Wainwright. But that was last year, this is a different Adam Wainwright. That game two matchup should be the highlight of the series.
In limited action, young slugger Matt Adams is dwarfing Harpers’s numbers with a slash line of .542 / .593 / 1.043. And no, that last number is not an OPS (on base percentage plus slugging), that is his actual slugging percentage. Those ridiculous numbers beg the question – why is he not getting more playing time ? The answer is simple, Carlos Beltran is heating up and while struggling, Allen Craig is still delivering with men on base.
Yadier Molina is the only consistent bat in the Cardinals lineup, going 9-20 on this road trip (.450).
Carlos Beltran is beginning to overcome a slow start to the 2013 season. His batting average is rising and the power is coming back. He hit 3 home runs in Philadelphia, giving him 4 on the season.
The entire Cardinals starting rotation. Blistering hot. The rain washed away one bad outing by Jake Westbrook, and he turned that one around in his next start. Jaime Garcia was not as fortunate in Philadelphia, but has only had the one bad outing.
Either bullpen. Rafael Soriano is 6 for 7 in save opportunities, but has been hit hard to start the season. He is beginning to settle down, which is a good thing for the Nationals. Edward Mujica is the lone bright spot in an otherwise inconsistent Cardinals bullpen. Mike Matheny continues to scramble, hoping to find a closer.
Matt Holliday – even though he leads the team with 12 RBIs, his .246 / .368 / .421 slash line has to improve if the Cardinals hope to keep pace with the Reds in the NL Central. We know that Holliday is a slow starter to the season, so we should see him heating up in the coming weeks. At least, for now, he is getting clutch hits with runners in scoring position.
Allen Craig is the same story, able to get key hits to drive in runs, but little else.
Jon Jay is having a brutal start to the season, hitting only .208. If that does not improve, expect to see Shane Robinson getting more starts in center field.
Daniel Descalso is hitting below the Mendoza line, at .182.
Danny Espinoza is also under the Mendoza line, hitting just .170. That could open the door for Steve Lombardozzi, who has been good in limited playing time.
Ryan Zimmerman (on the disabled list) – a .670 OPS is not cutting it for a player they expect to drive in 100 runs or more. Right now, he has more strikeouts (14) than base hits (12). He has hit Adam Wainwright and Fernando Salas in the past, but the rest of the Cardinals pitchers have handled him with ease.
The Cardinals currently have three players on the disabled list: Chris Carpenter(p), Rafael Furcal(ss) and Jason Motte(p). Two of the three are out for the season, with no timetable on the return of Motte.
The Nationals also have three players on the disabled list: Christian Garcia(p), Ryan Zimmerman(3b) and Wilson Ramos(c). Only Garcia is eligible to be activated, but he has just started his throwing program and is not expected to be back until next month.
Bob Netherton is a member of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and United Cardinal Bloggers. His work can be found at On the Outside Corner, a mostly historical blog about the St. Louis Cardinals. You can also find Bob on Twitter at @CardinalTales.