10/06/12 3:00 PM ET
On paper, Nats have edge over Cards in NLDS
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
The path was designed to be more difficult to negotiate for the Wild Cards, and it clearly is a success. You win the biggest game of the year, and you're on a plane, going home, thinking you almost have to take the first two in the NLDS. This would be a daunting task for most clubs, but the Wild Card in this equation is uniquely qualified to handle anything.
Wild Cards to the max last season, the reigning World Series champion Cardinals don't seem to worry too much about obstacles and handicaps.
The Redbirds, runners-up to the Reds in the NL Central, returned home on a high after dispatching seemingly invincible Kris Medlen and his Braves in Atlanta on Friday in the first Wild Card playoff game. They set a standard of wildness, with history's most controversial infield fly ruling, that will be difficult to replicate.
Without Albert Pujols, without Tony La Russa and peerless pitching coach Dave Duncan, the Cards are still the Cards. And that is nothing short of amazing.
Their performance in Atlanta underscored their many assets.
Allen Craig steps into Pujols' enormous shoes at first base and becomes the league's most dangerous clutch hitter. Mike Matheny replaces the iconic La Russa as manager and calmly navigates every storm. Derek Lilliquist assumes Duncan's role, and the arms continue to thrive under pressure.
The Cardinals might reshuffle the deck, but they're not a team you want to see in October -- under any circumstances.
On the other hand, one winner-take-all game in Atlanta is one thing. Taking three of five from the Nats, with their wonderful cast of characters led by venerable manager Davey Johnson, might turn out to be a challenge beyond the reach of even the Redbirds.
The Nationals, taking their cue from a manager never short of confidence, have the confident swagger that comes with the Majors' best regular-season record.
Another plus is all this positive energy flowing from a D.C. area embracing postseason baseball as a diversion from political gridlock and campaigns. Baseball in October in the nation's capital is a wonder to behold, and the Nats have the goods to carry it all the way through the month.
Start with the rotation, which was the game's best when Stephen Strasburg was dealing and remains hard to beat without the phenom, who was shut down early as a protective measure.
If the Strasburg situation was any distraction to his teammates, it didn't last long. The Nationals carried on without a hitch, outlasting the Reds for the best record and home-field advantage for the rest of the postseason.
Gio Gonzalez, acquired from the Athletics months before anyone imagined them surfacing as the amazing A's, is the staff leader and an NL Cy Young Award candidate.
Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and Edwin Jackson are power arms giving Johnson the brand of depth he once enjoyed with his 1980s Mets. The bullpen gets the job done.
Having Gonzalez available for the opener and series finale, if it is required, has to be comforting to Johnson. At his best, the Cards' Chris Carpenter is Gonzalez's match. The big right-hander wasn't even supposed to pitch again this season after the club declared him out because of upcoming surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome.
Like his team, Carpenter isn't easily counted out. Kyle Lohse has been the ace in Carpenter's absence, but he won't be available until the series shifts back to Washington after working the Wild Card classic. The bullpen gets a day to recharge, and that's a good thing.
The Nationals' lineup has a little bit of everything. Bryce Harper, a once-a-generation raw talent, has drawn most of the attention in Washington, understandably so. But the kid is just one weapon in an impressive array at Johnson's disposal.
Hitting between Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, Harper has the power and speed to bring fans out of their seats. The heart of the order -- Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse -- is the equal of the Cards' Matt Holliday, Craig and Yadier Molina.
Overall, however, the edge, top to bottom, goes to the Cards offensively. They work counts and do the little things while getting power from Carlos Beltran, their No. 2 hitter, as well as Holliday, Craig, Molina and 2011 postseason star David Freese. Underrated Jon Jay has served effectively as the leadoff man and center fielder.
Kurt Suzuki, another former Oakland athlete who found his way to D.C. in a midseason swap, has drawn raves from the Nats' staff for his pitch selection and overall defensive work. Suzuki also has delivered some big hits down the stretch, adding depth to Johnson's lineup.
Suzuki has been good, but Molina -- the Cards' leader -- is in another category altogether. He's a top-five NL MVP Award candidate, perhaps a small cut below Giants batting champion Buster Posey.
Nobody, not even Posey, has Molina's ability to control a running game with his quick, powerful, accurate arm. Molina has shown the ability to flourish offensively in big games, going back to the 2006 championship season.
The Nationals should be favored in this series, but they are keenly aware of the dangers posed by the resilient Cardinals.
The choice here, after much deliberation, is St. Louis in five. There's just something about October that brings out the best in this collection of athletes.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.