Entering the season, most pundits did not envision an NLDS featuring the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals. There were questions about the Braves’ lasting power as the rest of the NL East beefed up, and the Cardinals would have to outlast the Cubs and Brewers.
The Braves ultimately showed that any concerns about them were for naught, emerging as the champions of the only division that had at least four teams at or above .500. Their dynamic lineup and strong starting pitching allowed them to claim a second straight division title, and they seem ready to add more crowns in the future.
The Cardinals don’t have the stars that the Braves possess and may not be elite in any one facet, but they are a well-rounded team. Their offense can get the job done, the pitching is solid, and they employ one of the NL’s few non-flammable bullpens.
Manager Mike Shildt may win Manager of the Year for guiding this team to the playoffs.
The key to this series could be which team’s young starters fare better in the postseason.
Game 1: Thursday, Oct. 3, in Atlanta, 5:02 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 2: Friday, Oct. 4, in Atlanta, 4:37 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 3: Sunday, Oct. 6, in St. Louis, 4:10 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 4*: Monday, Oct. 7, in St. Louis, 3:07 p.m. (TBS)
Game 5*: Wednesday, Oct. 9, in Atlanta, 5:02 p.m. (TBS)
* if necessary
The Braves won the season series, claiming two of three in both sets. In the final game, the Braves rallied from a 3-0 deficit in the ninth inning to win, 4-3, in 10 innings. These teams last met in the playoffs in the 2012 wild-card game, a St. Louis victory. That game is remembered for a questionable infield fly rule that went against the Braves.
Game 1: Dallas Keuchel (8-8, 3.75) vs. Miles Mikolas (9-14, 4.16)
Game 2: Mike Foltynewicz (8-6, 4.54) vs. Jack Flaherty (11-8, 2.75)
Game 3: Mike Soroka (13-4, 2.68) vs. Adam Wainwright (14-10, 4.19)
Game 4*: TBD vs. TBD
Game 5*: TBD vs. TBD
The Braves are going to start with a former Cy Young winner and World Series champion who has started nine postseason games. While Mike Soroka had the best season of any Braves pitcher, he is noticeably better on the road, and thus will start at Busch Stadium. Mike Foltynewicz did not pitch well in his postseason debut last year, allowing five runs in six innings.
The Cardinals opted to have their ace, Jack Flaherty, pitch Sunday to clinch the division, and that’s why he’ll be getting the ball in Game 2. He can return on short rest for Game 5, if necessary. Dakota Hudson will pitch in the postseason for the first time and would likely get the ball for Game 3, though that hasn’t been officially announced yet.
BRAVES KEYS TO VICTORY
• First baseman Freddie Freeman dealt with an elbow issue down the stretch, and produced his lowest OPS of any calendar month in September. If the Braves are going to make a deep run, they’re going to need their team MVP to be at his best.
• This will be the second time youngsters Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies appear in the postseason, and perhaps last year’s introduction will benefit them. The two combined to hit just .194 in last year’s NLDS against the Dodgers. The two are instrumental to the Braves’ lineup while hitting in the top two spots.
• The Braves will need better starting pitching than they received last year. Atlanta’s starters lasted just 13.1 innings while failing to complete five innings in any start, and posted a 6.08 ERA. Having Keuchel and Soroka should help this time around.
CARDINALS KEYS TO VICTORY
• The Cardinals led the NL with 116 steals this year, and they are set up well against a Braves team that doesn’t control the game all that well. Atlanta’s catching duo of Tyler Flowers and Brian McCann combined to throw out just 24.3 percent of runners. St. Louis may be able to increase their opportunities with runners in scoring position.
• St. Louis finished with the second-best bullpen ERA in the National League, and is set up well should it have leads to protect. Andrew Miller can be quite helpful against Freeman and Nick Markakis, and Giovanny Gallegos had a breakout season. Closer Carlos Martinez does not yield many homers, which is helpful in October.
• The Cardinals lineup is going to have perform better than it did during the regular season. St. Louis ranked in the bottom half in most categories, and they’re going to need to score runs to keep up with a potent Atlanta offense. A strong postseason showing could be quite helpful to soon-to-be free agent Marcell Ozuna.
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