All season long, the Washington Nationals fought the perception their 2012 campaign was a fluke; a combination of spectacular timing and good luck. While this notion seemed to dissipate toward the end of the year (finishing with baseball’s best record tends to have that effect), the “Fluke Factor” always lurks; especially in the playoffs. The regular season means nothing. A baseball team’s bones are made in October. If the Nats can knock-off the defending world champions, consider their balls brass. Do they have a chance?
Catcher: Kurt Suzuki (Washington) v. Yadier Molina (St. Louis)
One is an MVP candidate with a rocket arm and a dirty neck tat. The other hasn’t hit above .250 in three years. Are we just about done here? ¬†Advantage: Cardinals
First base: Adam LaRoche v. Allen Craig¬†
Despite the loss of Lance Berkman, the Cardinals didn’t miss a beat by installing Craig at first. The kid can straight-up hit: with a slash rate of .307/.354/.522, Craig has comfortably inserted himself as the St. Louis clean-up hitter. He’s been obscenely hot at the plate lately, adding two hits in last night’s Wild Card game. LaRoche is no slouch, either: his 33 home runs are nice, but his fielding at first is almost as impressive. Craig, the converted outfielder,¬†is not as stout. ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† Advantage: Nationals
Second base: Danny Espinosa v. Daniel Descalso/Skip Schumaker
Espinosa has been vital to the Nationals as a reliable defender at second with occasional pop: he has quietly slammed 38 home runs in the last two seasons. St. Louis, on the other hand, has struggled all year to find someone who can play second base. Descalso and Schumaker are nice players, but at this point in the season, they probably are best suited for late-inning replacement roles. Advantage: Nationals
Shortstop: Ian Desmond v. Pete Kozma
When Rafeal Furcal went down for the year in August, Kozma had himself a nice little September, beating up opponent pitching to the tune of a .333 batting average and 10 extra base hits in only 72 at bats. While he piled on in 12 games against the dregs of the NL, he also managed seven hits in 11 at bats during the Cards-Nats series in late September. These numbers are nice, but they’re also extremely small sample sizes. What I can tell you about Ian Desmond is that he’s almost a carbon copy of his double play partner Espinosa — except he plays with more power, patience, and a better glove. Advantage: Nationals
Third base: Ryan Zimmerman v. David Freese
Here’s where things get interesting. Believe it or not, Zimmerman and Freese had almost identical years at the plate as well as in the field. Both have struggled with nagging injuries but are as healthy as they can be at this point in the year. As much as I love Zim, I gotta lean toward the guy who has been here before. ¬†Advantage: Cardinals
Left Field: Mike Morse v. Matt Holliday
I like Morse and if there’s someone on the Nationals who ends up hitting five dingers in this series, my money would be on him. However, Matt Holliday is an All-Star hitter and above-average fielder. Morse is a lot closer to Holliday at the plate than people give him credit for, but he’s also a terrible defender in left.¬†Advantage: Cardinals
Centerfield: Bryce Harper v. Jon Jay
Jay is a nice player who hits for average and can get on base. He also plays solid defense in center. Bryce Harper, on the other hand, possesses the skills to change the course of an entire game with his defense, base running, and power. If he can handle the pressure of being 19 years-old and on a national stage, he’s going to have a few opportunities in this series to make game-changing plays.¬†Advantage: Nationals
Rightfield: Jayson Werth v. Carlos Beltran
If this is what Werth is right now, an OBP machine with a little pop, they’ll take it. It’s a little pricey for a lead-off guy, but it could be worse. Even at 35, Beltran is still a vital piece of the Cardinal lineup. His power, base running, and defense in right anchor a pretty damn good outfield. Advantage: Cardinals
The aforementioned Nats-Cards series in late September scared the hell out of a lot of Nats fans, but let’s not forget the team had pretty much wrapped things up at that point and two of their three starting pitchers for that series were Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler. Both of those guys pitch way better at home than on the road, which is what they’ll get to do this time around. While I think Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright are bulldogs, Carpenter is just coming back from injury and Wainwright looked a bit spent in September. Wainwright, along with Game 2 starter Jaime Garcia, have also been lit up by the Nats in starts this year. While I think Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman don’t offer any guarantees, they have just as good a chance of shutting down an opponent on the road. ¬†Advantage: Push
Davey Johnson made a smart move by taking Tyler Clippard out of the closer’s role and moving him back to a setup spot. Drew Storen is solid, but the rest of the group is even better. Keep your eyes out for Christian Garcia — the former Yankee flamethrower struck out 15 in less than 13 innings this fall. He could be a useful weapon in tight situations if he makes the playoff roster. The Cardinals ‘pen is nice, but now boasts 18-game winner Lance Lynn. Despite this¬†anomaly, the Nationals are much better. Advantage: Nationals
The Cards boast a bunch of light-hitting David Eckstein wannabes. The Nats have the Goon Squad.¬†Advantage: Nationals
The Nationals matched up well with the Barves (unlike my usual typos, this one is intentional), but the Cardinals present a more complicated set of problems. Their offense is dynamic: Cards hitters blend power and patience like few other National League teams. On the mound, they boast two of baseball’s best postseason pitchers. Adding insult to injury, this year’s screwy scheduling also means the best team in baseball will have to play their first two NLDS games (in a best of five series) on the road in St. Louis. By the middle of next week, the Fluke Factor could be alive and well.
Alas, this isn’t your older brother’s Nats: they have their own stud starters, a tough lineup top to bottom, and some tremendous up-the-middle defense. Also, Davey. One gets the feeling he’s got a few tricks left up his sleeve. ¬†Nats in 4.