There was a short period of time where it seemed the Milwaukee Brewers might slip ahead in the NL Central race, but it was indeed the Cardinals that took the Central and will face the Braves. I can’t say I’m not happy that this is who we’re getting.
They’ve been about as hot as you could be in the second half. After finishing June with a 41-41 record, the Cards turned it on with a 50-30 second half. But you’ll have a hard time convincing me that they’re one of the best teams in the postseason. It took 91 wins to take the Central crown; that’s significantly less than the 97 wins that the East-winning Braves captured, and especially the 106 wins the Dodgers put up in the West. If they didn’t win the Central, they wouldn’t have the first Wild Card spot as the Nationals took that with 93 wins. In the AL, you had to win at least 100 games to win a division, and the Wild Card game is being played by teams with 96 and 97 wins. You couldn’t ask for much more in your first round match-up if you’re the Braves.
Also, fortunately for the Braves, the Cardinals play their best baseball at home. Their 50-31 record at home significantly outpaces their 41-40 record on the road. The first two games are in Atlanta, so that’s good for the Braves. Bottom line: the Braves are the better team, and as long as the playoffs aren’t completely random, they should also play like the better team.
That isn’t to say that the Cardinals couldn’t cause the Braves fits in some areas. Down the stretch, the Cards rode some great hitting and starting pitching, and that will undoubtedly help them in the playoffs. Their starting pitching is clearly the highlight of the team; 4 of their 5 starting pitchers had sub-3 ERAs in the month of September. That was headlined by the talk of the town, Jack Flaherty. Flaherty was nearly unhittable in the second half. In 106 1/3 innings, he rocked a 0.93 ERA. He was even better in September: 6 starts, 10.84 K/9, 1.64 BB/9, 0.41 H/9, and a .169 BABIP, which led to a 0.82 ERA in 44 innings. Yep, he averaged over 7 innings per start in that span. But unfortunately for the Cardinals, they needed him to pitch game 162 to get here, so expect Flaherty only once this series in game 2.
Nonetheless, they have others. Adam Wainwright pitched like the Adam Wainwright of 10 years ago down the stretch, contributing 36 IP in 6 starts and a 2.97 ERA. Dakota Hudson also pitched well with a 2.86 ERA in 6 starts of his own. They’ve got a solid 4 that are all pitching well at the same time. If they beat us, this is how they’re going to do it
On the offensive side, they’ve got a decent lineup, but you know who to pitch around. Tommy Edman down the stretch was the offense for St. Louis: .360/.423/.649, 179 wRC+ line in the month of September. The second and third sacker gave them 2.1 fWAR all by himself in the final month. Don’t pitch to him, and we’ll be doing a lot better than if we did. Paul Goldschmidt contributed a 142 wRC+ down the stretch as well. Otherwise, when the season was on the line, they didn’t get much else from others: Marcell Ozuna, Dexter Fowler, Paul DeJong, Yadier Molina, and Harrison Bader all delivered less than 100 wRC+ in September.
Their bullpen is terrible. They had 3 guys who provided positive Win Probability Added in September. That’s the time when the best arms are on deck, and they just didn’t have it. By comparison, Atlanta had 10 guys give them positive WPA in September as we they trying to figure things out. I can most definitely see them winning a game where they can get 7 innings from Jack Flaherty and then getting the ball to Carlos Martinez. But from there, they have to be praying that their bullpen plays above their capability and they can get to our starting pitching.
If our offense can get to their starting pitchers, and if our staff can avoid Edman and Goldschmidt, then this should be a won series. If they beat us in a short series, it won’t be because they were the better team. If I seem cocky or overly definitive, it’s because they are as good of an opponent as anyone to end this seemingly eternal postseason series drought. We’re the better team, and I think we play like it. Let’s kill ’em.