St. Louis Cardinals: Five keys to taking down the Nationals

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 9: The St. Louis Cardinals celebrate winning Game Five of the National League Division Series over the Atlanta Braves 13-1 at SunTrust Park on October 9, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 9: The St. Louis Cardinals celebrate winning Game Five of the National League Division Series over the Atlanta Braves 13-1 at SunTrust Park on October 9, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /

There aren’t many fans that predicted the St. Louis Cardinals would be playing for the NLCS this year. Now that they’re here, how can they clinch a World Series appearance?

Sitting at 44-44 at the All-Star Break, the St. Louis Cardinals seemingly came out of nowhere in the second half of the season to clinch the NL Central. They drew the Braves in the NLDS, and not many “experts” picked them to win that series. But they did. In dramatic fashion.

A stunning 10-run first inning in game five of the NLDS has the Redbirds just four small wins from their 20th World Series appearance in franchise history. It will be far easier said than done.

After seeing the Nationals infielder, Howie Kendrick, hit a 10th inning grand slam in game five against the Dodgers, I think I was as ecstatic as I’ve ever been watching a non-Cardinals baseball game.

The Dodgers, who have appeared in back-to-back World Series, were the best team (by win total) to ever lose in the Division Series. They presented a very tough challenge for a rallying Cardinals team looking to continue to shock the world.

The Nationals being a lower seed also allowed the Cardinals to gain home-field advantage throughout the series. Games one and two, as well as six and seven (if necessary) will be at Busch Stadium.

That being said, the Nationals are no slouch either. Coming off their first playoff series win in team history, they are loaded with elite talent and gunning for blood.

They are a very beatable team, but the Cardinals will need to capitalize on a few keys throughout the seven-game series.

Dexter Fowler and Kolten Wong MUST get on base

Ideally, everyone gets on base! Unfortunately, that’s unrealistic. The top two hitters in the lineup are crucial to winning this series. Prior to game five, they both struggled mightily at the plate in the NLDS, and that can’t happen again.

Runs will likely be at a premium again this series. With Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna being otherworldly hot in the NLDS, they were doing basically all the damage on their own. If Fowler and Wong can get on base in front of them, they have the potential to break games open earlier than the eighth inning.

Fowler was hitting the ball hard, but bad luck was taking over. If he keeps barreling up pitches, the hits will find open space. Wong just needs to do what he did during the regular season, the same approach that helped him have a career season, and he’ll be just fine.

The fielding has to get cleaned up

In a complete 180 degree turn from 2018, the Cardinals were an elite fielding team this season. Ironically enough, their defense in the NLDS was not up to par from the regular season. It cost them multiple runs, and potentially games in the series.

With Harrison Bader likely starting on the bench for the series, Matt Carpenter will have to hold his own at third base. He’s done well enough so far this year, but when he suggested he be taken out after the first inning of game five, he knows his limitations.

Tommy Edman will also have to remain a solid defender in right field, assuming he will continue to play there with Fowler in center field.

This is definitely the most achievable key but it’s very crucial in the big picture of winning four games against an elite team when you can’t afford to gift them runs.

Starting pitching must continue their dominance

The Cardinals lead the 2019 postseason with a phenomenal starting pitching ERA of just 1.29. Yes, the sample is only five games, but they wouldn’t have won without them.

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The bullpen has also been very good, but have looked gassed as of recently. Getting six or seven innings from starters consistently would be huge in order to preserve bullpen arms for key situations.

Taking advantage of Busch Stadium this series will also be key with pitching. Both Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright, games one and two starting pitchers, were much better at home than on the road this season. Getting those guys at home, then Jack Flaherty in game three will be a serious advantage rather than throwing them on the road.

With Andrew Miller, Carlos Martinez, and Giovanny Gallegos all pitching a lot in the regular season and NLDS, it will be critical to save them for the most important times.

BE SMART with Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto

This is something the Dodgers failed to do throughout their series that ultimately lead to their demise.

Both Rendon and Soto will accrue MVP votes this season, and the bright lights of the postseason haven’t slowed them down in the slightest. They are slashing .350/.423/.650 and .273/.385/.545, respectively.

The top of the Nats’ lineup is potent, with Rendon and Soto hitting third and fourth, respectively. And with Trea Turner and Adam Eaton hitting in front of them, they are a dynamic top four that needs to be worked around as much as possible.

Mike Shildt hasn’t had the quickest hook this postseason with his pitchers, and it came back to bite them multiple times in the series. He can’t afford to do that this series.

Just trying to get the starter through one more inning so he can be pinch hit for next time up isn’t going to fly. That’s how you get burnt by elite hitters.

So I guess this is a two-parter. Be smart with Rendon and Soto, and Shildt has to have a quicker hook when facing the top of the lineup.

Get to Washington’s bullpen

This is the biggest key to the entire series. The impact of this cannot be overstated.

The Washington Nationals have one of, if not the, best starting rotation in baseball. Full of cold-blooded killers on the mound, they have carried this team to where they are now, and they still have some gas left in the tank.

They are spending over $75 million on the trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin this year alone. Again, all of them will likely get Cy Young votes. Even game one starter, Anibal Sanchez, had another strong season at age 35.

Their bullpen was their Achilles Heel early in the season that lead them to starting off the season poorly. They ranked dead last in bullpen ERA this season at an astronomical 5.66. The Nats neutralized this by having their bullpen throw the least innings in all of baseball.

The Nats know they get in trouble when their starter leaves the mound. That’s exactly what the Cardinals need to strive for. Long at-bats, seeing a lot of pitches, and patience at the plate.

Make. Them. Earn. It.

Next. It’s time to party like it’s…2014!. dark

This is the biggest series for the franchise since the 2013 World Series, and I couldn’t be more excited for all of the intriguing matchups. Hopefully, Shildt is ready for when he needs to make a series-deciding decision.