MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals

MLB Series of the Weekend: Cardinals Host Nationals, Two Hot Pitching Staffs to Square Off

Beginning at the start of the 2013 season, the Washington Nationals were in some kind of sleepwalk mode. A talent-laden club was muddling around the .500 mark and would wind up missing the playoffs after so many experts said they had World Series written all over them.

The most likely culprit for this trance was the previous year’s division series—along with the team that beat them: the St. Louis Cardinals. Washington was an out away from advancing only to lose and be eliminated. That sting lasted longer than any Nats fan would have expected.

The 2014 campaign started similarly for Washington. Although injuries were partially to blame, new manager Matt Williams saw a continuation of that underachievement. However, since May 30, the Nationals are 10-3 and now have overtaken the Braves for first place in the NL East.

After getting hot in mid-May, the Cards have been inconsistent in June—as their poor run production has led to a lack of support for strong starting pitching.

St. Louis’ lack of offensive steadiness has been exemplified many times in recent weeks. The Cards’ bats were held silent on June 1 and 2—shut out in back-to-back contests against San Francisco and Kansas City. They followed it by scoring 12 runs in the next two games.

One of the few hitters in the lineup that has been steady is Matt Carpenter, who is tops on the team in batting average (.294) and on-base percentage (.385). However, for those to be the figures of a top offensive performer shows that the Cardinals have flaws at the plate.

Jhonny Peralta’s home run total (10), is equal to the combined total of Allen Craig and Matt Holliday—two players who are supposed to have more pop.

St. Louis and Washington are both hitting around .250 as a team. However, they are trending in different directions. The Cards are struggling to score runs. The Nats are making it look a lot easier.

Better health has resulted in greater structure to the lineup. Ian Desmond is tops in homers with 13 and runs batted in (RBI) with 42.

Adam LaRoche, annually a slow-starter, has been on-point when he hasn’t been injured. His batting average is a team-best .310 and he gets on base 42 percent of the time.

All that’s left to return is Bryce Harper, which leaves Williams with a difficult, albeit fortunate situation. The young outfielder obviously needs to be in the lineup, but who comes out?

The most likely candidate is Denard Span. However, he’s making Williams’ choice much harder with 16 doubles to go along with his speed on the basepaths and his range in center field.

St. Louis continues to be consisted in the field, with the second-fewest errors in the National League (34). Washington, on the other hand, has the second most (51). Although he is a strength with the bat, Ian Desmond is somewhat of a liability in the field. His strong arm can’t make up for a rusty glove and 13 errors.

But an even bigger concern for the Nationals right now is the insertion of Ryan Zimmerman into left field. Upon his return from a thumb injury, Zimmerman was moved from his natural third base position due to his wild arm. After a little more than a week, he’s done quite well.

One area in which both clubs are strong is opponent stolen base percentage. In fact, they rank No. 1 and 2. The Cards only allow 55 percent of runners to steal successfully, mostly due in part to the great Yadier Molina. For the Nats and their MLB-leading rate of .541, they have had Wilson Ramos, Jose Lobaton and Sandy Leon making sure other teams will think twice before trying to swipe an extra base.

Starting Pitching:
It’s no surprise that these clubs boast two of the best rotations in the game. And with their recent run, the Nationals have now emerged as the National League leader in team earned run average (ERA).

What was more astounding was that in a recent six-game stretch, Washington starters had 47 strikeouts and zero walks. Attaining most of those whiffs is certainly Stephen Strasburg—who has 108. Newly-acquired Doug Fister, who will start on Sunday, has stepped into the fold nicely since returning from injury. In seven starts in 2014, he has a 5-1 mark with a 2.68 ERA.

Jordan Zimmermann is slated to take the mound for Friday’s opener at Busch Stadium, coming off a dominant outing against the Padres.

Countering them will be this trio of Cards arms: Lance Lynn opposes Zimmermann, while Shelby Miller faces Strasburg and Jaime Garcia gets the call for the finale. Collectively, this group has a record of 15-9. Garcia, like Fister, has also performed well since coming off an injury. As for Lynn, he has not found June to his liking—an 0-2 mark with a 6.48 ERA in the month. Miller enjoyed June 7 greatly, shutting down the powerful Toronto Blue Jays.

The Cards pitcher that would be the ideal candidate to stifle Washington is ace Adam Wainwright. The only problem is, he isn’t scheduled to start in this series—and the Nats can breathe a bit easier.

Relief Pitching:
Basing it on talent, the Cardinals appear to have the edge. And, in fact, closer Trevor Rosenthal has compiled 17 saves—just three behind the league’s best.

But this group has shown, as of late, reason to be concerned. Their two most potent arms out of the bullpen, Rosenthal and young Carlos Martinez, both have ERAs that hover near 4.00.

Doing a much better job at holding opposing bats in check are the Washington relievers. Rafael Soriano has 13 saves in 15 chances. Neither he, nor Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen or Aaron Barrett has an ERA over 2.00. Storen, the team’s closer in 2012, has fit in nicely with his new role—shown best by a WHIP of 0.71.

Other Match-ups to Watch

Blue Jays vs. Orioles:
The easiest way to erase a deficit in the standings is to beat the team above you head-to-head. That’s exactly what’s been presented to the Orioles as they try to reel in the Blue Jays. However, Baltimore may be better off playing this in Canada, as it had a 14-15 record at Camden Yards coming into Thursday night’s opener. The series also pits the league’s two best home run hitters this year—Edwin Encarnacion and Nelson Cruz (21 and 20 homers, respectively).

Angels vs. Braves:
A combination of the surging Nationals and the flailing Braves has put Washington on top in the NL East, with Atlanta now on the chase. No time to look ahead to a divisional showdown next weekend in the nation’s capital—especially when facing an Angels team that is also chasing first place. Los Angeles is trying to keep pace with Oakland in the AL West and will try to keep the Braves bats quiet with C.J. Wilson (7-5, 3.32) and Garrett Richards (6-2, 3.09 ERA) taking the mound in each of the first two games. It may not be that difficult—as Atlanta is 11th in the NL in hitting.

Rangers vs. Mariners:
It’s quite ironic that the team which made the biggest off-season splash is a quiet contender in June. Having gone a recent stretch in which they won seven of eight games, the Mariners and new manager Lloyd McClendon have crept above the .500 mark—but still in third place behind Oakland and Los Angeles. Robinson Cano, Seattle’s surprise free agency signing this past winter, has seen a drop-off in power but an improvement in batting average. But it’s the pitching that’s been the difference, as the M’s are second in the AL in team ERA. Texas, on the other hand, is last in the league in that category—despite the efforts of Yu Darvish.

Brian Wright

About Brian Wright

With over a decade's worth of sports journalism experience, MLB Lead Writer Brian Wright has been featured on Bleacher Report, SB Nation, as well as the Washington Examiner. He is currently the host of his own sports history podcast, 'Profiles in Sports'. While attending Virginia Tech, Brian covered Frank Beamer's Hokie football teams (among other sports) for the school's daily campus newspaper. Nothing would please him more than a World Series title for his beloved New York Mets.