St. Louis Cardinals vs. Washington Nationals
Game 1 – Sun. 3:00 PM; Game 2 – Mon. 4:30 PM; Game 3 – Wed. TBD; Game 4 – Thu. TBD; Game 5 – Fri. TBD
Both teams bring top notch pitching into this series. With the Nationals finishing second in MLB for team ERA, and the Cardinals finishing 8th, don’t expect too much offense. While the Nationals have had the better season, the Cardinals are battle-tested from their World Series run a year ago and their fight to win the second Wild Card spot this season. If there’s one weakness in this series, it’s the Cardinals bullpen, which posted a team ERA of 3.90, and blew twenty-two save opportunities.
An interesting thing to look at in this series is the juxtaposition of the running game. The Nationals, who stole a not-so-robust 105 bases in 2012 (T-14th in MLB), will have to run against Yadier Molina, whose stolen base percentage of .521 was second best in 2012. Compare that to Kurt Suzuki’s .699 percentage, and the advantage goes to the Cardinals, even if running is not a major part of their game plan. That could be enough to let Jon Jay and Carlos Beltran run when they get on base.
The offenses are going to be quiet, but we know enough about the Cardinals now to know that Matt Holliday, David Freese, Molina and Beltran can pack a punch. We still don’t know how the Nationals, led by youngsters such as Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper, Roger Bernardina, Danny Espinosa, and Michael Morse. This is a series of differences – the Nationals prefer the long ball, the Cardinals just hit for average. The Nats play solid defense, and the Cardinals are a little more porous. The Nationals bullpen is strong, the Cardinals bullpen weak. The Nationals are young, and the Cardinals are experienced veterans.
Key for St. Louis – It comes down to frustrating the Nationals, and taking advantage of their young team. For all year, the Nationals played without pressure. Coming into the playoffs with baseball’s best record, the pressure is fully on them. That means St. Louis’ starting pitching has to keep them in the game. They don’t need to be dominant, but they can’t get rocked early and let the Nationals coast. The Cardinals thrive under pressure, and we don’t know how well the Nationals can do. Keep the game close, get some big outs from a bullpen that has to step it up, and make the Nationals beat them.
Key for Washington – Their pitching staff of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, and Ross Detwiler must step up their game. All of them will be making their trip to the playoffs. Without Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals will have to go deeper into their rotation than they would like. That means that either Detwiler or Edwin Jackson will start Game Three. No announcement has been made by Davey Johnson regarding his third starter, but I would give the ball to Detwiler based on his ability to keep the ball in the park.
Key Player for St. Louis – Carlos Beltran: Beltran hit only .286 against the Nationals this season, but he did have two home runs in 21 ABs. This is Beltran’s first trip to the playoffs since 2006 with the Mets, where hit hit three home runs in the NLCS against St. Louis but also struck out looking with the pennant-winning runs on base in the ninth inning of the deciding game. Overall, Beltran is a career .360 hitter in the playoffs, with a .791 slugging percentage. As the Cardinals’ leading home run hitter, expect him to be rallies if the Cards are successful.
Key Player for Washington – Ryan Zimmerman: No player has spent more time with the Nationals than their third baseman. As the franchise player since 2006, Zimmerman has frequently been the best player on the worst team. Finally, the 27 year old gets to showcase himself on the big stage. Zimmerman was 9/30 with four extra base hits against the Cardinals in 2012, as well as an overall .327 hitter with two outs and runners in scoring position. Zimmerman has been waiting seven years to take his team here. If he gets an opportunity to make a difference, he will.
The Pick: Nationals in four
Baltimore Orioles vs. New York Yankees
Game 1 – Sun. 6:00 PM; Game 2 – Mon. 8:00; Game 3 – Wed. TBD; Game 4 – Thu. TBD; Game 5 – Fri. TBD
When I first started watching baseball, the Yankees and Orioles rivalry was huge. From Jeffery Maier, to Armando Benitez vs. Tino Martinez, to games that lasted as long as today’s average Yankees-Red Sox game, this rivalry defined baseball for in my youth. The last time the Orioles made the playoffs was 1997, when they lost in the ALCS to the Indians. To put in context how long ago that was, Mike Mussina was the ace of the Orioles and made a strong case to be the MVP of that series in a losing effort.
There’s a sort of irony in this series – for all the years that the Orioles have been bad since then, the Yankees have found a way of making Camden Yards their vacation home. It’s appropriate that the series opens up in Baltimore.
Both teams like to hit, so if you’re looking for some pitching duels, you probably shouldn’t be tuning into this series. The Yankees hit the most home runs in baseball, a franchise record 245. The Orioles hit the second most with 214 dingers. The teams pitched to within five-hundreths of a point of each other, in terms of ERA.
The return of Brett Gardner for the Yankees changes this series a little bit. Runners were successful stealing bases against Matt Wieters just 61 percent of the time, compared to the league average of 75 percent. That will limit the damage that Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Ichiro Suzuki can do when they get on base.
In terms of pitching, the Yankees have a true ace in CC Sabathia, who was dominated the Orioles (16-4, 3.12 ERA) throughout his career. The Orioles have no true ace, the closest being Wie-Yin Chen, who will start Game 2 on Monday night. The pitching match-ups all favor New York, who will send Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda to the mound following Sabathia. If there’s one advantage in pitching that the Orioles do have, it is their bullpen. Six Oriole relievers posted an ERA of under 3, including their closer Jim Johnson who was 51-54 in saving games this season.
Key for Baltimore – The key to beating the Yankees is not to give up the long ball. However, that was a problem for Orioles pitching this season, as they yielded 184 home runs. The Yankees had trouble hitting with runners in scoring position all year long (.228 with RISP and 2 outs) and rely on Granderson, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira to go deep. If the Orioles can limit that damage, they can make this series interesting.
Key for New York – The Yankees were futile with runners in scoring position in 2012. There will be plenty of opportunities to score against Baltimore, and the Yankees have to take advantage of it.
Key Player for Baltimore – Adam Jones: Jones had a breakout season in 2012, finally putting up a season that his amount of raw talent is capable of producing. Jones set career highs in batting average and home runs while playing an above average center field. Like many other Orioles, this is his first trip to the post-season, so there is some question as to how he will handle the pressure. If he handles the pressure like he handled the Yankees in 2012 (.300, 3 HR, .514 SLG), the Orioles should be just fine in this series.
Key Player for New York – Robinson Cano: Cano finished the season on a merciless streak – nine consecutive multi-hit games to close out the season. In his last three post-season series, Cano has hit over .300 in each of them, and hit a total of six home runs. Look for him to hit well in Camden Yards, where he’s a career .364 hitter.
The Pick: Yankees in four
Be sure to check out Part One of the Division Series Preview, and follow me on Twitter @JustinCirillo