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October 12, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

NLDS Game Five Preview: Cardinals at Nationals

by Daniel Rathman

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Four division series, four Game Fives, and this one between the Cardinals and Nationals should decide the last team to advance—unless, of course, the Yankees and Orioles play extra innings again. If the Cardinals win, the no. 2-seeded Giants will enjoy home-field advantage in the NLCS; if the Nationals win, they will host Game One on Sunday as the senior circuit’s top regular-season team. First things first, here are the PECOTA odds and projected starting lineups for this evening’s contest:

Cardinals (Adam Wainwright) at Nationals (Gio Gonzalez) – 7:30 p.m. ET

PECOTA Odds of Winning: Nationals 52.2 percent, Cardinals 47.8 percent

Odds if Nationals were starting Strasburg in this game: Nationals 57.4 percent, Cardinals 42.6 percent

Projected Starting Lineups:

Cardinals vs. Gonzalez (L)

Nationals vs. Wainwright (R)

Jon Jay (L)

Jayson Werth (R)

Carlos Beltran (S)

Bryce Harper (L)

Matt Holliday (R)

Ryan Zimmerman (R)

Allen Craig (R)

Adam LaRoche (L)

Yadier Molina (R)

Michael Morse (R)

David Freese (R)

Ian Desmond (R)

Daniel Descalso (L)

Danny Espinosa (S)

Pete Kozma (R)

Kurt Suzuki (R)

Adam Wainwright (R)

Gio Gonzalez (R)

For the first time in this series, we can directly quantify the Stephen Strasburg effect—the decrease in the Nationals’ odds of advancing to the NLCS as a result of their decision to shut down the flame-throwing righty in September. PECOTA views the downgrade from Strasburg to Gonzalez as costing Davey Johnson’s team 5.4 percent of its win probability, a significant hit, but not enough to turn the favored Nats into underdogs.

Of course, Gonzalez did not exactly inspire confidence with his Game One effort, when he more closely resembled the pitcher the Athletics traded away than the one the Nationals traded for. Epitomizing what it means to be “effectively wild,” Gonzalez issued a season-high seven walks in five innings of work, but was charged with only two runs, because he only coughed up one hit. (Oddly enough, the hit—a Freese single—came in the bottom of the fourth inning, when the Cardinals did not score.)

 

As shown by the Brooks Baseball plot above, Gonzalez’s seven walks were entirely his own doing, as home-plate umpire Paul Emmel handed him more undeserved strikes than he took away by calling pitches in the zone balls. Furthermore, for such an effectively wild effort, Gonzalez induced relatively few whiffs—only six on 110 pitches, and none on his 19 curveballs—a factor equally as worrisome as his lack of control, because it could portend a shellacking if he pitches more aggressively in Game Five.

The Cardinals, who ranked among the best hitting teams during the regular season, were particularly adept at handling left-handed starters, placing second in the National League with a .787 team OPS. That’s not surprising, considering that most of Mike Matheny’s best bats are right-handed, including each of the two-through-six hitters in the first-year skipper’s postseason lineup. But after managing only one knock off Gonzalez in Game One, the Redbirds were baffled by Ross Detwiler on Thursday, netting only three hits in six innings, during which the 26-year-old St. Louis native held them to one unearned run. 

One-hit, seven-walk outings are exceedingly rare, so something’s got to give in Game Five. Either Gonzalez will rediscover his much-improved control and dominant stuff, or the Cardinals will shed their slumps. And whichever it is may well decide the outcome of the series.

But St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright, who fanned 10 in 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball in the opener, will also get a say. And so will the Nationals offense, which was bailed out by a Kozma fielding error in Game One, but has scraped across only nine runs in the first four games combined.

Werth’s walk-off home run, on the 13th pitch of his ninth-inning battle with Lance Lynn, may serve as a wake-up call for the dormant attack. Besides Werth, only two other hitters—Zimmerman and LaRoche—have a home run in the series, and only the cleanup-hitting first baseman has two. Those two big flies are his only hits in 13 at-bats, and since he has also drawn four walks, LaRoche now has a wacky .154/.313/.615 triple slash through four games.

That earns him a spot in today’s Matchup of the Game. After reaching base in each of his first three plate appearances against Wainwright this year, on Aug. 31 and Sept. 28, LaRoche has only a walk to show for his most recent five. He is 7-for-33 lifetime against the Cardinals righty, with one double, one homer, five walks, and seven strikeouts.

After attacking LaRoche with a variety of pitches earlier in their careers and in their first meeting of the 2012 season, Wainwright has since relied solely on his fastball, sinker, and changeup, throwing only one curveball in their last seven head-to-head showdowns. That’s notable, because the bender is Wainwright’s bread-and-butter pitch.

The 31-year-old northpaw spun 28 curveballs in his Game One outing, and the Nationals flailed helplessly at half of them. Many of those were two-strike offerings in the dirt, and those swings-and-misses enabled Wainwright to post his second-best strikeout total of the season, trailing only his 12-punchout, five-hit shutout over the Astros on Aug. 21.

If Wainwright is similarly sharp tonight, the Nationals could be in for another arduous struggle, and banking on a late defensive miscue isn’t a sound strategy.  Washington succeeded in running Wainwright’s pitch count up to 100 in the sixth inning of Game One, and it will likely need to do so again to back Gonzalez in the rematch. 

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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