The start of October, all the yearly telltale signs that fall has begun are everywhere: the days are shorter and nights cooler, the high school down the street is having their homecoming bonfire, and the St. Louis Cardinals are preparing for the playoffs. Well, the later may not happen every year, but as the Cards prepare to enter their 12th season in the playoffs in the 2000s, it has come to be an autumn expectation in St. Louis. At nearly 40 games over .500 the 2015 iteration of the Cardinals boasts baseball’s best record and are the top seed in the National League. The Cardinals hit the 100 win mark for the ninth time in team history and the first since 2005, drawing more than 3.5 million fans for the fourth time.
Early season ending injuries to ace pitcher Adam Wainwright, and first-baseman Matt Adams coupled with significant injuries to veteran outfielders Matt Holliday and Jon Jay meant that four of the Cardinals nine opening day starters would miss considerable playing time during the season. This should be enough to doom most teams. Instead, the Cardinals have put together one of the best seasons in recent memory. The team played over .500 baseball every month of the season (with October still pending), and even their worst month, September, saw them winning games at a .536 clip. Their 19-6 start was the best by a St. Louis franchise since 1899, one year before the team even adopted the “Cardinals” as their name. (They were known as the St. Louis Perfectos in 1899.) In their 74th game, the Cards racked up their 50th win, making them only the 18th team since 1965 to win 50 games before losing 25.
All of the regular season accolades are nice, but they don’t mean much not that the post season has begun. The first obstacle standing in the way of the Cards quest for their 12th World Title is the archrival Chicago Cubs. This will be the first time the two clubs have met each other in the playoffs. Yes, you read that right, in the entire 100 plus years rivalry between the Cubs and Cardinals, they have never played each other in a playoff game until the NLDS begins on Friday night and a rivalry that has been somewhat subdued the last few years will be brought to full force.
What to Watch For
Even though the Cubs finished third in the Central Division and enter the playoffs as the second wild card team, they are anything but a pushover. Finishing only three games behind the Cardinals, the Cubs amassed 97 wins this season, and have come into the playoffs red hot. Since August 1st the Cubs are 42-18, including a current 9 game winning streak. The Cubs have a potent offense. All eight of the position players that will likely start game one have double digit homeruns, led by Anthony Rizzo’s 31. The Cubs offense also led the league in walks and have the highest on-base percentage of any of the NLDS teams. Their offense does have an exploitable weakness however, they strike out; a lot. The free-swinging Cubs led the majors with 1,518 strikeouts, about 250 more than the Cardinals. The offense is not the Cubs only thing to worry about. The top of the rotation with Cy Young hopeful Jake Arrieta is nearly impossible to score on, boasting an ERA of 0.75 since the All-Star Break. His appearance in the Wild Card game however will push Arrieta’s first start of the NLDS back to Game 3 next Monday night. The Cubs Game 1 starter will be John Lester and while he does not have the dominant arsenal that Arrieta possess, he has significant post season experience. After their top two starters, however, the Cubs have some question marks. Their Game 2 starter will likely be Kyle Hendricks. The 25-year old had an 8-7 record with a 3.95 ERA and has been hit well by the Cardinals. There are also some questions regarding the Cubs bullpen which does not have a lot of big game experience.
For the Cardinals, playoff success will likely rest on the arms of the starting pitching, a familiar theme throughout 2015. Getting the ball in Game 1 for St. Louis will be veteran John Lackey. With a contract for only $500,000, Lackey may have been the best value in baseball this season. The 36-year old had a 13-10 record, pitching 218 innings with an ERA of only 2.77. Lackey has post season experience and has had success against the Cubs this year going 2-0 with a 1.25 ERA in three starts. Game 2 starter figures to be Jaime Garcia. Garcia finally put together that season that all Cardinal fans have been waiting for. There is no denying his talent, but with an injury plagued career, fans were unsure if he would ever live up to his potential. In 2015 the 28-year old has answered his critics (myself included), with a 10-6 record and a 2.43 ERA. Facing a Chicago lineup that has power from the left-side, Garcia (and other Cardinals’ southpaws) may be the key to the entire series. Game 3 starter will likely be Michael Wacha. The 2013 NLCS MVP stepped into the role of “ace” after the injury to Adam Wainwright with a 17-7 record and a trip to the All-Star game. Cardinals’ pitchers will have to improve upon September however where it seemed the pitching staff was somewhat fatigued. High pitch counts and lessened control are often the signs of tired arms and during the month they gave up the most base on balls during the month of any NL playoff team (6th most overall) and team ERA jumped to an unimpressive 4.15.
While the Cardinals’ pitching has been stellar most of the season, the offense has been sporadic. The team was 11th (out of 15) in the National League in both total runs scored and home runs. The team batting average was .253 and slugging percent was .394, both middle of the pack values. The Cardinals need to find some more consistent offense. Middle infielders Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong both has great starts to the season (Peralta an All-Star Game starter) but fizzled down the stretch. Outfielder Jason Heyward has been the team’s most consistent player throughout the season with a .293 average, 13 homeruns, and 23 stolen bases Third baseman Matt Carpenter appears to be back on track after a rough middle of the season; Carpenter led the team in homeruns (28), RBIs (84), and doubles (44) and may be peaking at the right time. His increase in strikeouts is a concern this year. He has stuck out a team high 151 times which is 40 more than last season in about 50 less plate appearances. One of the last remaining questions is how much of a boost will the Cardinals receive from their plays coming back from injury. The return of Matt Holliday, Randall Grichuk, Jon Jay, Adam Wainwright, and Yadier Molina all just in time to make the playoff roster may provide a great reward or may prove to be a significant risk. Holliday and Jay both missed significant time before a late September return, and both struggled to get in enough at bats down the stretch to get their timing back. Grichuk filled the gap in the outfield during the middle of the season and would have been in the conversation for rookie of the year, but a late season injury has reduced his ability to throw, keeping him out of most games when he returned in September. Even though he has now been cleared to throw as normal, will the missed time affect his timing at the plate? The way that Stephen Piscotty and Tommy Pham played down the stretch, it is hard to argue that either one of them should be removed from the lineup in favor of the prior “everyday” outfielders. Wainwright has said all season that he will be back by the playoffs, and like most people I passed it off as a player just hoping. Well he is back and will see duty out of the bullpen. I love Wainwright, and honestly, no, I don’t think I could tell him “no you won’t be on the roster.” He has got big game experience as a starter and reliever, he is a veteran, a team leader, and if he says he is ready to go, you give him the benefit of the doubt. Given manager Mike Matheny’s track record of adding pitchers to post season rosters even if they are not truly available (Shelby Miller two years ago and Michael Wacha last season) you have to wonder about what real impact Wainwright will have and can you use him in a high leverage situation. Finally, Yadier Molina will start behind the plate for the Cardinals despite a slight tear in a ligament in his thumb. He will be wearing a special padded brace that will fit inside his catching hand. His catching and throwing should only be minimally affected (at least that is the hope), batting, well that may be another issue. Molina’s value behind the plate far exceeds what he will do with the bat, so as long as he is able to effectively call the game, he should be in there.
I can’t remember a more exciting time leading up to an NLDS series. One of these two teams is going to have to endure the sting of not just getting eliminated, but getting eliminated at the hands of rival. The players are amped up, the cities are amped up, and the buzz from the fans will make this series electric. Both teams are stacked for years to come so this first playoff meeting may just be the first of many to come over the next few years. This year, I give experience the nod: Cardinals in five.