Jeff Roberson / AP

One of the great mysteries of this baseball season is how the Cardinals won only 88 games. They may have lost Albert Pujols and Manager Tony LaRussa, and their trainer’s room was packed all year, and they lost a boatload of close games. But they have a deep, powerful lineup, an experienced rotation and just enough bullpen arms.

For all those reasons, based on several conversations over the past few days, many in the Nationals organization believe the Cardinals are the toughest match-up for them in the entire field, American League or National League. If they get past the Cardinals, they may not face a tougher opponent all October, the World Series included. The best two teams in baseball – the 98-win Nationals and defending champs – could be facing off in St. Louis right now.  

The series will likely be in the Nationals’ starters’ hands. The Cardinals’ mashing, patient lineup spits on close balls and hammers pitches that catch too much of the plate. If a starter is just barely off, the game can snowball in short order – just see the seven-out and four-out starts Ross Detwiler and Edwin Jackson made last weekend.

The Nationals’ starters need to control the game by throwing quality strikes. That may sound cliché, but it will probably be the most determinant factor of whether the Nationals advance to the NLCS or go one series and out.

If the Nationals’ starters can control the game early, the Nationals have the advantage in their bullpen and off their bench. The Cardinals are carrying only one left-handed reliever, Marc Rzepczynski. Manager Davey Johnson expects the Cardinals will employ him to come in and face a left-handed pinch-hitter – Chad Tracy or Roger Bernadina – in the pitcher’s spot, and then remain in to face Bryce Harper, batting second.

That means two things: Jayson Werth will get some key, late-inning at-bats against a lefty, and the Cardinals will be forced to use right-handed arms against Adam LaRoche and either Tracy or Bernadina in the pinch.

The Nationals’ bullpen is well-suited to quiet the game down. Christian Garcia, Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen provide plenty of right-handed firepower to combat the Cardinals’ cavalcade of right-handed sluggers – Allen Craig, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and David Freese.

Mattheus against Holliday will be especially key – Holliday hates fastballs on his hands, and that is Mattheus’s specialty. Mattheus faced Holliday three times this year, and he retired him in all three encounters.

Gio Gonzalez’s performance will set the tone. The Nationals expect him to be revved up at first, but to settle down and be himself in the end. Even though he is a left-handed, his curveball and fastball, when is locating it, is hell on right-handed batters. In his only start this year against the Cardinals, Gonzalez fired a five-hit shutout, and right-handers went 2 for 21 against him. He can make the Cardinals swing and miss like no other Nationals starter.

For the Nationals to win, Game 1 will be key. They appear to a relaxed, confident team, even though 21 of the 24 active players have never been in the playoffs. This morning, leaning against the rail of the first base dugout, shortstop Ian Desmond shared a quotation he recently spotted on Twitter: “The arc was built by an amateur. The Titanic was built was a pro.”

Davey Johnson’s years of experience and subtle leadership will help greatly in that regard. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” he said before the game. “Business as usual.”

In reality, the playoffs are anything but business as usual. The Nationals are in for a fight. It is one they can win, but against the Cardinals it will not be easy.