10 burning questions for Nationals-Cardinals NLCS

Nationals' Max Scherzer against the Dodgers during 2019 NLDS

It’s a matchup that few saw coming when the postseason began. The Washington Nationals will face the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS with a trip to the World Series on the line.

St. Louis took the standard path to reach this point. It sat near the top of the division for much of the regular season before clinching it late in September and drawing a matchup against the Atlanta Braves. Now coming off a series victory with big performances from key players, the Cardinals take on a team that still might be shocked it made it this far.

The Nationals seemed destined for a rebuild on May 24 with a 19-31 record and considering big changes. They went 74-38 the rest of the way, won the wild-card game on a dramatic comeback then repeated the same process to win the NLDS.

Now let’s take a look at the burning questions that will shape this series and decide who represents the NL in the World Series.

Can Washington maintain its reliance on the same pitchers?

The Nationals knew the bullpen was their biggest weakness coming into October and they found a way to work around it in the NLDS. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson carried this pitching staff. Now their endurance will be tested in a seven-game series.

Scherzer will start Game 2 in St. Louis with Strasburg lining up for Game 3. Both starters can give Washington seven innings and feed directly to Doolittle and Hudson. Of course, that adds more innings to their arms and this is the best-case scenario for Washington. Weaknesses are exposed in a best-of-seven series far more than best-of-five, so the Nationals will need someone to step up in the NLCS.

Will the ninth inning remain a problem for St. Louis?

There are few things more troubling for a team in the postseason than a shaky closer. The Cardinals may still have some faith in Carlos Martinez, but it’s fading and that presents major problems in the NLCS.

We’ve already seen Washington’s penchant for late-inning comebacks both at home and on the road. Martinez allowed six runs, six hits and three walks in the NLDS. It’s a glaring concern for the Cardinals and one more rough outing might force them to make a change.

Can Juan Soto keep up his postseason heroics?

Playoff baseball always delivers a young star coming into his own to prove it on a national stage. Baseball fans across the world witnessed Soto’s brilliance in the NLDS and he now has an opportunity to do even more.

Soto comes into the NLCS with a .273 batting average and .930 OPS through six postseason games. While he struggled at times, he shined in the big moments with two game-tying hits in the eighth inning. While other 20-year-old baseball players are playing winter ball, Soto is crushing it in the clutch during the playoffs.

Do the Cardinals make a change in the leadoff spot?

St. Louis trusted Dexter Fowler in the leadoff spot for all five NLDS games and he posted a .091/.167/.136 slash line during the series. Every out should be valued preciously in October, but St. Louis is giving one away when Fowler grabs a bat. The Cardinals are going to face a much better pitching staff in the NLCS, which makes base runners even more crucial. A change at the leadoff spot is necessary to maximize hot starts by Marcell Ozuna and Paul Goldschmidt.

Can Aníbal Sánchez be the Nationals’ X-Factor?

Sánchez won’t get much recognition from Washington’s series win over the Dodgers, but he played a key role. The 35-year-old allowed one run in five outstanding innings during Game 3 and he could get things rolling in Game 1 against St. Louis.

Sánchez loves mixing his off-speed pitches to frustrate opposing batters. He uses his cutter (27.5%), changeup (27%) and curveball (5.9%), according to FanGraphs. It’s also the approach Atlanta used to shutout the Cardinals in Game 2 by throwing only 12 four-seam fastballs of its 116 total pitches. If he commands his pitches and gets the right movement, Sánchez will make a significant NLCS impact.

Who will win the manager battle?

It’s the question that always comes up in October, especially with two managers in the NLCS for the first time. Mike Shildt and Dave Martinez each have made some mistakes in the postseason, but they made enough wise decisions to make it this far.

Martinez will be managing the use of his trusted pitchers while needing to mix in other relievers. It’s a delicate balance where one mistake, whether pulling a starter too early or too late, can cost a crucial game. Meanwhile, Shildt will be juggling his bullpen and a lineup that could require in-game adjustments. The microscope will focus squarely on each decision, with fans looking to blame someone for every loss.

Does Howie Kendricks’ Game 5 heroics carry into NLCS?

Kendrick seemed destined for infamy in Washington entering the 10th inning. Everything changed with his stunning grand slam to win the series. Now we wait to see if the postseason heroics carryover into Kendrick’s NLCS performance. Washington needs him to stay hot given he regularly bats in the No. 5 spot with opportunities to drive in runs. If he can’t produce in key moments and his defense remains a problem, the Nationals might have to bench their NLDS hero.

Will Yadier Molina’s bat wake up after ugly NLDS?

St. Louis will forever view Molina as an icon and will celebrate the day he is elected into MLB’s Hall of Fame. Yet for all of his incredible achievements and what he means to the team and organization, October has been rough to him lately.

The 37-year-old went 3-for-21 during the NLDS with two RBI and one walk. It’s the latest in a troubling trend for him in recent postseason trips. Molina is 9-for-50 in his last three playoff runs with one extra-base hit and two RBI. He provides defense and leadership behind the plate, but he doesn’t deserve to hit fifth if he can’t produce when called upon. If Molina can’t turn things around, Shildt needs to bump him down.

Will postseason experience play deciding role in NLCS?

It’s the theme that no one can escape this time of year. An experienced clubhouse facing a team that made it deep into the postseason for the first time. Making it to the NLCS is common in St. Louis, but this is something Washington hasn’t experienced.

While the stage might be a bit brighter, this is an environment the Nationals can handle. Scherzer and catcher Yan Gomes went to the World Series and Martinez experienced it as a bench coach in Chicago. More experience is always lovely to have, but Washington has enough of it where it likely won’t make the difference this series.

Can Paul Goldschmidt live up to his contract?

St. Louis struck a blockbuster trade this offseason to add Goldschmidt’s All-Star bat to its lineup. He signed a five-year, $130 million extension before the season then struggled out of the gate with a .769 OPS before the All-Star Break.

He came alive in September with a .953 OPS and that seems to be carrying over into the playoffs. Goldschmidt posted a stellar .429/.478/.905 slash line during the NLDS and formed an unstoppable duo with outfielder Marcell Ozuna behind him. If he keeps crushing baseballs and getting on base, Goldschmidt will be on his way to making the Cardinals look even smarter for acquiring and extending him.

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