All in all, it was not a dramatic season in the National League. In all actuality, it was a rather predictable one by the middle point in the year. The Central division had the runaway top three teams in the league, as the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs spent the summer in their own V.I.P. section, fighting over postseason positioning.
Meanwhile, the eastern and western outposts of the league were mostly exclusive battles between a pair of teams. The New York Mets pulled the heist of the summer by overcoming everybody’s on-paper champion coming into the year, the Washington Nationals. Meanwhile on the left coast, the Los Angeles Dodgers fended off the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants to take home a second consecutive division title, and position themselves as the World Series favorites, no less, according the folks in Las Vegas.
But the games are played on the field and it is sure to be a gauntlet to clear on the National League side this season. With a mixture of upstart and established postseason resumes, anything could happen between these evenly matched clubs. All have strong pitching staffs and all have the ability to make a difference via intangibles or pure overriding power.
Will the right advantages meet the right disadvantages along the way as the National League playoffs series tighten their respective grips? Or will someone buck a trend and reinvent themselves in route to inheriting the vacant National League crown? Here is where how the fracture points can shake out.
Wednesday night’s Wild Card Game in Pittsburgh showcased the Cubs at their very best: a quick striking, powerful lineup, capable of producing runs and handing them to a dominant starting staff. Granted, everyone on their staff is not Jake Arrieta, who threw the first no walk, double-digit shutout in postseason history on Wednesday, while lowering his second half ERA to a sub-atomic level.
But Arrieta is not the only Cub pitcher capable of following this model, and when Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Dan Haren are keeping the runs low, more often than not, their offense will give them what they need to succeed.
However, more so than any other club, the Cubs do not have an absolute answer at the end of their ballgames. So the key to overcoming them is to get their starter out of the game, and start taking hacks against the pen. Hector Rondon has been strong at the end of games, but the bridge to him is littered with Fernando Rodney, Clayton Richard, Justin Grimm and a group that can be beaten. The key is just to force them into the mix.
As always, the daunting task of defeating the Dodgers is trying the to see the light past the pair of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke awaiting at the entrance and the potential exit of a series. It is arguably the biggest potential difference maker that any team has is being able to deploy two of the top three pitchers in the game this season in the majority of the games in a series.
While they have struggled to leverage this advantage into many series victories in the past, the combination of the two have never pitched better in tandem than they did this year, working to a combined 454 innings while turning in a 35-10 record on a 1.89 ERA and 501 strikeouts. Despite the fact that their postseason marks sit at a less than inspiring 1-5 record and 5.12 ERA for Kershaw, as well as a 2-2 tally on a 3.63 ERA for Greinke, they simply are too dominant to bet against still….or at least for now.
With Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez and a healthy Yasiel Puig in tow last year, the Dodger lineup was an obstacle course to work through. But this year it is not quite as imposing of a proposition. Gone are Kemp and Ramirez, and Puig is gritting through a hamstring injury that nearly kept him off the postseason roster. Adrian Gonzalez is still in tow, but the cast around him is much more susceptible to inconsistency (see Joc Pederson) and overall lowered impact.
Pitching was never the problem for the Metropolitans. But the (sometimes contentious) return of Matt Harvey, when combined with the continued upswing of Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard has provided Terry Collins’ club with an invaluable asset to have this time of the year: a regular hard tossing starter that misses bats. Add in the fact that the ageless (and semi-shapeless) Bartolo Colon is available, as well as the possibility of having Steven Matz in the mix as well, the Mets' very first world problem of having too much starting pitching is strength this time of year.
The pairing of Harvey and deGrom is an especially strong asset to have currently, as they are one of the few tandems in the game that can stand up to the Dodgers’ dynamic duo at the front of their rotation. And that is exactly what they will be asked to do this weekend in order to set the postseason pace. And after matching wits with LA, if they survive on they gain an instant advantage in nearly any other series.
At times, they flash back into the team they were towards the middle of the year that went into seemingly instant droughts and could not support their pitching staff. It had seemed that they were past that point in the post-Yoenis Cespedes and (returned from injury) David Wright incarnation of the team, but then they spiraled down into another pocket of absentee impact at the end of the year.
They managed just eight runs over their final six games, and after the blazing stretch run that began the month and secured the NL East title, the Mets managed only a 7-11 record post September 15th. That is a small sample size, but an important one to heed as momentum is everything this time of the year. If the offense is not clicking, the Dodgers could make short work of these mini-Miracle Mets up front.
No team has played in — or won — more postseason games than the Cardinals over the past five years. And consequently, no team won more games this season than them either. That type of consistency is key and plays a big part in being up for the moments that inevitably arise during a tight playoff push. Of their starting staff of John Lackey, Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn, they have made a combined total of 36 career postseason starts, while closer Trevor Rosenthal carries a 0.75 career postseason ERA, while racking up 38 strikeouts in 24 innings.
And now they can add in the fact that staff ace Adam Wainwright, a veteran of two World Series wins and 11 postseason series, will be available to work bridge innings out of the bullpen as well, as he has successfully return from a torn Achilles suffered this April.
In the words of Bane of The Dark Knight Rises fame, when it comes to October readiness, this team was “born in it, molded by it”.
For all of their success this season, the Cardinals have still been far more heavily reliant on their oft-unflappable pitching staff than their ability to consistently produce runs. They finished 11th in the NL in runs scored this year, the fewest of any team in the playoffs in either league.
This has been in part due to the fact that major parts of their everyday lineup have spent extended time on the disabled list, and even now on the eve of their playoff debut, are still on the mend. But the time for excuses and slumps have passed, and if the Cardinal offense cannot come together and produce a suitable amount of support for their staff, their 5th consecutive trip to the playoffs will be a short one.
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