Key Nationals pitcher: RHP Max Scherzer
It’s hard to choose from any of the Nats’ big three because Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin all probably will be given long leashes in their starts and deployed in relief between starts. But we will go with Scherzer because the gap between Good Max (as in the NLCS against the Dodgers) and Bad Max (as in the wild-card game against Milwaukee) is the widest of any of them. The Cardinals (210 homers in 2019) don’t have the same prevalence of home run threats as the Brewers (249) and Dodgers (279) did, but keeping the ball in the park still will be key for Scherzer, who has given up seven homers in his past 25⅔ innings, dating from late September.
Key Cardinals hitter: 3B Matt Carpenter
He’s the pivot point between the Cardinals’ offense-oriented and defense-oriented lineups, and in the division series, the Cardinals erred on the side of defense, which typically meant Harrison Bader in center field, Tommy Edman to third base and Carpenter to the bench. But against the Nationals’ superior starting pitching, perhaps the Cardinals might try for more offense, which could lead to a much larger role for Carpenter and a longer lineup for the Nationals’ pitchers to face.
Key Nationals hitter: 3B Anthony Rendon
Let’s not overthink this. Rendon is the Nationals’ best all-around player and a top-three MVP hopeful. After a rather ordinary September (.239 average, .400 on-base percentage, .420 slugging percentage), his swing and approach appear to be back to their midseason peaks, as evidenced in the division series (.412/.455/.765). His last eight plate appearances against the Dodgers went sacrifice fly, RBI single, sacrifice fly, deep flyout, deep flyout, double, homer, double. At the top of his game, he will be the best player on the field at all times.
Cardinals X-factor: LHP Andrew Miller
He isn’t the shutdown, multi-inning weapon he once was for Terry Francona’s Cleveland Indians, but he probably will be the guy Mike Shildt calls upon to face Nationals slugger Juan Soto late in games. Miller was used that way three times against Braves slugger Freddie Freeman in the division series, retiring Freeman twice on a flyout and a strikeout and hitting him with a pitch the other time. It’s not hyperbole to say at least one game in the NLCS will come down to Miller vs. Soto in the late innings.
Nationals X-factor: 2B Howie Kendrick
Was there any doubt after what he did in Game 5 against the Dodgers? The Nationals will have to live with the unsightly defense and the double play grounders in exchange for Kendrick’s ability to change a game with one swing — as he did Wednesday in Los Angeles, where he rewarded the Nationals’ faith with a grand slam in the 10th inning. Before that swing, he was 5 for 22 with no extra-base hits, one RBI and three defensive errors this postseason. But the Nationals gladly will take that in exchange for similar heroics.