ST. LOUIS — The good news: One hit is better than no hits. The bad news, Cardinals fans: You might not want to look at the next three starting pitchers for the Nationals.
The St. Louis Cardinals couldn’t touch Anibal Sanchez in the opening game of the National League Championship Series as he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning before pinch hitter Jose Martinez hit a soft liner into center field with two outs to spoil what could have been the third no-hitter in postseason history.
Sean Doolittle would finish off the one-hitter and 2-0 victory for the Washington Nationals. Now the Cardinals get to face Max Scherzer on Saturday afternoon. Then Stephen Strasburg. And then Patrick Corbin. Those three ranked in the top 10 in the National League in ERA. They ranked 2-3-4 in strikeouts. They ranked in the top 12 among NL starters in lowest batting average and lowest OPS allowed. Those three are the primary reason the Nationals are favored to win this series — only the fifth wild-card team since 2008 to be favored in an LCS.
Of course, we should also point this out to Cardinals fans: Those previous four wild-card favorites all lost the series.
The Cardinals themselves aren’t about to back down from facing Scherzer and his upper-90s fastball — not to mention one of the best sliders in the business … and his changeup … and cutter and curveball and that extra level of intensity that makes him one of the best competitors in the game. Yeah, the dude has won three Cy Young Awards for more reasons than just a 97 mph heater he can blow past hitters.
It will be a much different pitcher than Sanchez, who tops out around 90 mph and throws a lot of sinkers and cutters. “Definitely a lot different,” Cardinals rookie infielder Tommy Edman said, “but at the same time they’re both guys who throw their off-speed for strikes. You have to deal with that. Honestly, the approach is the same. Swing at good pitches and not their pitches.”
Veteran Matt Carpenter — 7-for-23 against Scherzer in his career — said you leave Friday night behind. “That’s the beauty of a seven-game series. We have a lot of baseball ahead of us. Obviously we would have loved to have won this first one, especially at home, the excitement level is big for Game 1. We can flush this one and come out ready for tomorrow.”
The problem for the Cardinals is that they don’t have the most powerful lineup in the playoffs. Among the four NL teams who made it to the division series, they were well behind the others in runs per game in the regular season:
The Dodgers, Nationals and Braves ranked 1-2-3 in the NL in runs. The Cardinals ranked 10th. Some of that is related to park effects — Busch Stadium is good pitcher’s park — but in a season where 85 players with at least 300 plate appearances slugged .500, the only Cardinals player to reach that mark was the undersized Edman, who reached .500 on the nose on the strength of a .304 batting average and seven triples in 326 at-bats.
Paul Goldschmidt led the team with 34 home runs and Paul DeJong was second with 30. But after a monster April, DeJong hit just .206/.297/.403 since May 1 and has been moved down to the eighth spot in the lineup. Marcell Ozuna hit 29 home runs and had a good division series against the Braves but also hit just .219 in the second half and .160 in September.
It’s fair to ask: Is this Cardinals offense good enough to win four of the next six games and beating three of the best starting pitchers in the world in the process?
“There’s complete hope,” manager Mike Shildt said. “We had a really good offensive club. Sanchez was really good tonight. … There’s nothing but optimism about all our players and our offense for sure. We’ll be ready to go tomorrow.”
One reason for hope surprisingly might actually be Scherzer’s fastball.
“I think the numbers show that we’re a good fastball-hitting team,” Carpenter said. “That’s who we are. That’s our DNA. … In a league where for the most part you get a lot of fastballs, we’ve done a good job at that.”
The numbers do back up that statement. The Cardinals had the fifth-best OPS in the majors against fastballs, behind the three American League powerhouse teams and the Dodgers. They hit .284/.375/.505 against fastballs. OK, fine. But Scherzer’s fastball isn’t your normal fastball. Against fastballs of 95-plus, however, the Cardinals still hit .275/.352/.487, the fourth-highest OPS.
Maybe the Cardinals will thrive against a pitcher who — as Jose Martinez would say — throws over the speed limit. They can also rally behind Adam Wainwright, their Game 2 starter who tossed 7⅔ scoreless innings against the Braves in the NLDS. The 38-year-old vet will be making his first NLCS start since 2014. Wainwright actually squared off against Scherzer on Sept. 18; he gave up one unearned run in a 5-1 victory.
“I told him after game it’s, competing against him is like Christmas for me,” Wainwright said before Game 1. “He’s one of the best competitors out there, one of the greatest pitchers of our generation for sure. I think he’s probably going to be a Hall of Famer, and it’s just a privilege to get to compete against him.”
The Nationals also know Friday’s victory is just that — one victory, one of the four needed to move on to the next goal.
“Every game’s going to be a battle,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “That’s a really good team over there, that could put a really good pitcher on the mound to match ours every single night. … We’re obviously going to enjoy this one a little bit, but it gets us nothing tomorrow. We’re gonna come out tomorrow and face a guy for them that’s done a lot in his career. It’s not gonna get any easier.”
Indeed, Scherzer versus Wainwright is a great matchup. Scherzer has 170 victories and is still going strong, perhaps on that Hall of Fame path. Wainwright is winding his own excellent career that has included four top-three Cy Young finishes and 162 victories. Wainwright is now a lot like Sanchez — he needs to hit the corners and keep the Nationals off-balance with the great curveball.
He joked about how similar he is to Scherzer: “We’re both attacking with high velocity fastballs at the top of the zone and nasty sliders and changeups.”
The beauty of the baseball postseason isn’t just that it’s a best-of-seven series, but you can win with 98 mph fastballs or 89 mph fastballs. We’ll see which approach will be the winning one in Game 2.