MLB Playoffs: NLDS Preview

San Francisco Giants vs Washington Nationals

The Washington Nationals come in with the best record in the NL, two years after their last playoff berth, and a year after missing the playoffs under “World Series-or-bust” expectations in 2013.  The Nats are in the playoffs for only the third time in franchise history, dating back to their time in Montreal, and are trying to bring Washington a World Series title for the first time since the Washington Senators (now the Minnesota Twins).  The Giants come in off their 8-0 beating of the Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game, a win that came on the road in Pittsburgh.  Dating back to 2012, the Giants very quietly have an eight-game postseason winning streak, showing they are a franchise that simply knows how to get it done in October.  This series begins this afternoon in Washington (3:07 pm ET, FS1)

Pitching:  The Giants have a solid rotation, although it will be turned around due to ace Madison Bumgarner (18-10, 2.98 ERA) pitching the Wild Card game, as Jake Peavy (6-4, 2.17 with Giants, 7-13, 3.73 overall), the 2007 NL Cy Young winner, will pitch in Game 1, followed by Tim Hudson (9-13, 3.57).  Bumgarner should be available for Game 3, leaving Ryan Vogelsong (8-13, 4.00) as the likely Game 4 starter, although the starter for Games 3 and 4 has not been announced by the club.  While the Giants rotation is solid, the Nationals counter with Stephen Strasburg (14-11, 3.14) for Game 1, followed by Jordan Zimmerman (14-5, 2.66), who threw a no-hitter in his final regular season start, and Doug Fister (16-6, 2.41), who has a plethora of postseason experience from his time with the Tigers.  The Game 4 start would likely go to either Gio Gonzalez (10-10, 3.57) or Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.85), although Roark says he is expecting to work out of the bullpen.  In relief, the Giants have used Santiago Casilla (1.70 ERA, 19 saves) to close games for them throughout the second half of the season, after Sergio Romo (3.72, 23 saves) was reduced to a setup role, joining Jeremy Affeldt (2.28), Jean Machi (2.58) and Javier Lopez (3.11) as major contributors in the late innings.  This isn’t as good as the Giants bullpen has been in other recent playoff runs, but this is still a good unit.  For the Nationals, after a shaky 2013 for their bullpen, they have pitched very well in relief.  Drew Storen (1.12, 11 saves) earned the closer’s role in September after Rafael Soriano (3.19, 32 saves) had his share of struggles.  Other key bullpen pieces include Tyler Clippard (2.18), Aaron Barrett (2.66), and Craig Stammen (3.84), as well as August waiver claim Matt Thornton (0.00 with Nationals, 1.75 overall), who hasn’t allowed a run since being dealt to Washington.

Hitting:  San Francisco is led by former NL MVP Buster Posey (.311 average, 22 HR, 89 RBI), Pablo Sandoval (.279, 16 HR, 73 RBI), and Hunter Pence (.277, 20 HR, 74 RBI).  But holding with the normal Giants postseason pattern, it was instead Brandon Crawford (.246, 10 HR, 69 RBI) and Brandon Belt (.243, 12 HR, 27 RBI in 61 games) who had the clutch hits in the Wild Card Game, including Crawford’s grand slam, the first by a shortstop in postseason history.  Mike Morse (.279, 16 HR, 61 RBI) was left off the roster for the series with an oblique injury.  The Nationals don’t necessarily have a huge name (Bryce Harper is probably the biggest) in their lineup, but as a unit are very strong, led by Jayson Werth (.292, 16 HR, 82 RBI), Anthony Rendon (.287, 21 HR, 83 RBI), Adam LaRoche (.259, 21 HR, 92 RBI), and Ian Desmond (.255, 24 HR, 91 RBI).  While he would probably say he’s had a down year, Bryce Harper (.273, 13 HR, 32 RBI in 100 games) has still been effective, and Denard Span (.302, 5 HR, 37 RBI) has been an excellent leadoff man.  As a unit, the Nationals offense produces.

Other:  Bruce Bochy is in the playoffs for the seventh time as a manager, seeking his fourth pennant and third World Series title.  He has never lost a postseason series as Giants manager, with his only postseason series losses coming as Padres manager.  The Nationals are managed by rookie manager Matt Williams, who led the team to the best record in the NL in his first year.  He does have postseason experience from his playing days, winning a World Series with the 2001 Diamondbacks, and as a third base coach, winning the NL West with the D-Backs in 2011.  The Nationals have a loud but respectful crowd, and will have home field advantage in the series.  On paper, the Nationals look like the better team, but the Giants know how to win in the playoffs, which should make this series interesting.

The Nationals will win the series, 3 games to 2.


St. Louis Cardinals vs Los Angeles Dodgers

The best of the four division series matchups is a rematch of the 2013 NLCS, matching the Cardinals and Dodgers.  These two teams were the preseason favorites in the NL, but both got off to slow starts, with the Dodgers catching fire in the middle of the season and holding on to win the NL West, and the Cardinals getting hot the last two months to catch the Brewers and win the NL Central.  Both teams can say that winning the World Series is a very attainable goal, with both teams competent in all facets of the game.  This powerhouse series begins tonight in Los Angeles (6:37, FS1) with a killer pitching matchup.

Pitching:  Both of these teams would consider pitching to be their strength, and that should be apparent in the matchup for Game 1, when Clayton Kershaw (21-3, 1.77 ERA) of the Dodgers faces Adam Wainwright (20-9, 2.38) of the Cardinals, as probably the best two starters in the NL go head-to-head with a playoff win on the line.  In Game 2 and Game 3 the Dodgers will turn to Zack Grienke (17-8, 2.71) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (14-7, 3.38), as a pair of pitchers that would be aces most anywhere else but are behind Kershaw for the Dodgers will be a tough test for the Cardinals to face.  The Dodgers haven’t named a Game 4 starter, but unless Kershaw comes back on short rest (which is what the Dodgers did in the NLDS last year), it would likely be Dan Haren (13-11, 4.02).  The Cardinals also have a solid group behind Wainwright, with Lance Lynn (15-10, 2.74), John Lackey (3-3, 4.30 with Cardinals, 14-10, 3.82 overall), and Shelby Miller (10-9, 3.74) set to pitch Games 2, 3, and 4.  Interestingly enough, the Cardinals have made the decision to put 2013 NLCS MVP Michael Wacha (5-6, 3.20) in the bullpen.  Joining him in relief will be closer Trevor Rosenthal (3.20 ERA, 45 saves), Carlos Martinez (4.03), Seth Maness (2.91), and Pat Neshek (1.87).  While the unit isn’t quite as strong as in years past, this is still a very good bullpen.  In the Dodgers bullpen, closer Kenley Jansen (2.76, 44 saves) proved himself to be one of the best closers in the game this year.  While his setup men Jamey Wright (4.35), Brandon League (2.57), JP Howell (2.39), and Brian Wilson (4.66) don’t have the greatest individual numbers, as a unit, the Dodgers also have a solid pen.

Hitting:  While the Dodgers rotation is probably their best strength, their lineup is still one of the best in baseball, led by Adrian Gonzalez (.276 average, 27 HR, 116 RBI), Yasiel Puig (.296, 16 HR, 69 RBI), and Matt Kemp (.287, 25 HR, 89 RBI).  Hanley Ramirez (.283, 13 HR, 71 RBI) played well in the 2013 playoffs, and Juan Uribe (.311, 9 HR, 54 RBI) has had a knack for clutch hits in the playoffs throughout his career.  Dee Gordon (.289) has used his speed to lead the NL in triples (12) and steals (64).  Looking at the Cardinals offense on paper, with no one’s individual numbers jumping off the page, you can see they are a pitching-based team.  But Matt Holliday (.272, 20 HR, 90 RBI), Jhonny Peralta (.263, 21 HR, 75 RBI), Matt Adams (.288, 15 HR, 68 RBI), and Yadier Molina (.282, 7 HR, 38 RBI in 110 games) have all had solid seasons.  While Kolten Wong (.249, 12 HR, 42 RBI) can’t match the speed of Dee Gordon, he has 20 steals and can create runs on the basepaths.

Other:  Don Mattingly is in his fourth year as Dodgers manager, and the team has improved in wins every year he has been under the helm.  This will be his second playoff appearance as manager, after winning the NL West last year and losing to these Cardinals in the NLCS in six games.  Mike Matheny inherited a World Series champion after the 2011 season from Hall of Famer Tony La Russa, and hasn’t disappointed, with three postseason trips in his first three seasons, and a chance to reach the NLCS in each of his first three seasons as well if the Cardinals can beat the Dodgers.  Matheny also led the Cardinals to the World Series last year, although they lost to the Red Sox in six games.  In last year’s NLCS, the Cardinals had home field advantage, but this time around it is the Dodgers who have home field, which may make a difference between two fairly even teams.

The Dodgers will win the series, 3 games to 2.


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