(Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The Washington Nationals begin a four-game series Thursday against the St. Louis Cardinals, the defending World Series Champions. And, in some ways, it’ll serve as an interesting contrast and test for the Nationals. While the Nats lead their division, the Cardinals sit in second-place and in good position for the second wild-card spot. They have a good pitching staff but are buoyed by their offensive prowess. The Nationals lean the other direction: a pitching-dominant team with an improved offense.

Here is a quick breakdown of the best matchups to watch:

Nationals pitchers vs. Cardinals hitters:

The Cardinals are offensive juggernauts. They have the second-highest run differential in the majors, or first in the NL, at +113. (In other words, they’ve outscored their opponents by that much this season.) They’re third in the major leagues with 4.86 runs per games (behind Texas’s 5.15 runs per game and Boston’s 4.92 runs per games) and lead the National League. And they don’t necessarily do it with home runs: the Nationals have hit 138 home runs compared to the Cardinals’ 133. Nor do they strikeout a lot, their 940 strikeouts are below league average and over 100 strikeouts less than the Nationals. The Cardinals do it by sheering hitting prowess and patience. They are tied with Texas for the major league lead in on-base percentage (.340) and are third in OPS (.770). They have four hitters – Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran and David Freese – in the top 35 in the majors in OPS, all of them above .845. So even if Molina misses Thursday’s game, and possibly Friday, with from the lingering effects of a collision at the plate earlier this week, the Cardinals offense won’t be lacking.

Nationals starters vs. Cardinals hitters:

Thursday’s starter Edwin Jackson: The right-hander won a World Series with the Cardinals last season so not only is he familiar with their hitters from that, he has also faced them in the past. His nemesis: Molina, who is 7 for 8 with a home run against him in his career. (Holliday isn’t a slouch either: 4 for 13 with a home run.)

Friday’s starter Gio Gonzalez: Given his time in the American League, the left-hander has only faced one Cardinals hitter in his career, Beltran. The Cardinals have a good blend of left and right-handed hitters thanks to switch-hitters like Beltran and Rafael Furcal. And hitters from either side have struggled to hit Gonzalez this season.

Saturday’s starter Jordan Zimmermann: The right-hander has faced the Cardinals three times in his career, lost twice and has a 8.62 ERA, his second-worst against any opponent. His nemesis: both Molina (3 for 6) and Holliday (2 for 4).

Sunday’s starter Stephen Strasburg: The right-hander has never faced the Cardinals. Left-handers have hit him harder (.275) than right-handers this season (.180). This could be dangerous territory with power-hitting Beltran and leadoff hitter Jon Jay.