This was the finest season of Molina’s nine-year career. He is a four-time Gold Glove catcher with a rocket arm: He threw out 35 of 73 base stealers this season, the second-best percentage in the majors. Molina posted a stellar season at the plate, too, leading the Cardinals in batting average and placing second in on-base and slugging percentage. Suzuki is a nifty defender, as well, slowly making an impact limiting one of the Nationals’ most obvious weaknesses: opposing stolen bases. Since his August trade from the Oakland Athletics, his hitting has improved, batting .301 (25 for 83) since Sept. 1.
LaRoche had the finest season among NL first basemen. He led the Nationals’ regulars in on-base plus slugging percentage (.853), home runs (33), walks (67) and RBI (100) and was second on the team with 155 hits. He is the veteran presence in the heart of the lineup and in the clubhouse, and he is an elite defender with a glove that scoops up errant throws. Craig is no slouch either, replacing Albert Pujols at first, and leads the majors with a .400 average with runners in scoring position. He hit .307 with a .354 on-base percentage and a .522 slugging percentage with 22 homers in just 119 games.
Espinosa bats seventh for the Nationals, but the switching-hitting power hitter could easily hit higher in other lineups. He smashed 17 home runs but is strikeout prone, leading the NL with 189 punchouts. His tremendous range and rocket arm are a vital part of why the Nationals made only 94 errors this season, fourth fewest in the National League. The Cardinals alternated mostly between Descalso and veteran Skip Schumaker, with Descalso playing most of the games late in the final month. Schumaker is the better hitter, while Descalso is versatile and can play all over the infield.
Desmond posted the best season at his position in the majors. He led all shortstops with a .511 slugging percentage and 25 home runs, and was second among shortstops with an .845 OPS despite missing 25 games with an oblique-muscle injury. He posted the first 20-home run, 20-stolen base season of his career. He has elite range in the field and is a team leader. The Cardinals lost their everyday shortstop, Rafael Furcal, to an elbow injury in late August and found a potential future mainstay in Kozma, a rookie. Kozma hit .333/.383/.569 in only 72 at-bats and plays strong defense.
In some ways, Zimmerman and Freese are similar. Freese posted an .846 OPS, slightly higher the Zimmerman’s .822. While Freese gets on base more, Zimmerman offers more pop with five more home runs (25). Zimmerman has the edge with his elite range and quick reactions at third base, but his awkward throwing motion could be an issue. Freese has the playoff experience Zimmerman lacks, winning the MVP award in both last year’s NLCS and World Series. Freese had an 1.258 OPS with five home runs in 18 playoff games.
Even though he missed the season’s first 50 games with a strained muscle in his back, this position belongs to Morse. A year ago, he was the Nationals’ best offensive force, smashing 31 home runs, but has been hampered by injuries this season. His wrists and hands are still banged up, which could be an issue again in the playoffs. Holliday has quietly been one of the baseball’s best hitters. Since 2006, he has the seventh-best OPS (.938) and bashed 196 home runs. He has done the same this season: 27 home runs, 102 RBI and a .877 OPS.
Harper posted a historic rookie season for a teenager, and more importantly for the Nationals, is on a tear heading into the playoffs. Over his past 34 games, he is hitting .341 with 10 home runs. His impact, however, goes beyond the stat line. He’s an aggressive base runner who will easily stretch a single into a double. His ability to steal bases may be neutralized by Molina’s stellar arm. Jay is a stellar center fielder, too, with good range. He is a good leadoff hitter with a .373 on-base percentage and hits for average.
Beltran, at 35, is still a dangerous power hitter. After bouncing between the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants last season, he signed as a free agent with the Cardinals and smashed 32 home runs, drove in 97 runs and played 151 games. Beltran has the edge defensively with 10 assists from right field. Werth returned from a broken wrist in August and morphed into one of the game’s best leadoff hitters with his ability to work counts, foul off pitches and get on base. Had he not missed 75 games he would be in the top five in the majors with 4.37 pitches seen per plate appearance.
The silver lining to all the injuries to the Nationals’ regular players is that they returned, and all the players who filled in built experience. With everyone back, Steve Lombardozzi (.273 batting average), Tyler Moore (10 home runs) and Roger Bernadina (.777 OPS) are versatile options off the bench. Pinch-hitter extraordinaire Chad Tracy is tied for second in the majors with 11 pinch-hit RBI despite missing 55 games because of injury. Curiously enough, Tracy is tied with the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, one of the best players in the NL who doesn’t start regularly. Infielder Skip Schumaker and catcher Tony Cruz are strong fill-ins.
Nationals relievers posted a 3.23 ERA despite the second-largest workload in the NL. Drew Storen has pitched only half the season season because of an elbow injury, and it may be a blessing in disguise during the playoffs. The Cardinals’ bullpen is the relative weakness of their pitching staff. They posted a 3.90 ERA, 20th in the majors. Fireballing closer Jason Motte tied the NL lead with 42 saves, and righty Mitchell Boggs had a strong season with a 2.21 ERA over 78 games. But left-handed hitters are hitting .255 against their lone lefty specialist, Marc Rzepczynski.
The benefit of not having to play the one-game wild card game is that Gio Gonzalez can pitch the opening game of the series and possibly start twice. Gonzalez led the majors with 21 wins, allowed the second fewest hits per inning (6.73) and was second in the NL to Stephen Strasburg in strikeouts per nine innings (9.35). His strength: lefties are hitting .199 against him and righties hitting .231. Adam Wainwright, a dominating right-hander before hurting his elbow, is in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. He struggled in the first half and posted a 3.28 ERA in the second half.
Jordan Zimmermann was nearly unhittable for stretches of the season and then stumbled in August and early September. The culprit was pitching on longer rest than normal, which could be a factor in this start after a week off. Zimmermann found a groove over his final five starts, posting a 2.61 ERA. Jaime Garcia, who dealt with injury from June to mid-August, is a capable left-hander but susceptible to right-handed hitters. His home ERA is more than two runs lower than on the road. He posted a 2.10 ERA over his last four starts.
Edwin Jackson was tapped for his spot not only because of his postseason experience (two World Series, including a ring) but because the Cardinals feature a right-handed heavy roster. Jackson, who can be inconsistent, will be opposed by another postseason veteran, Chris Carpenter, who pitched in the Cardinals’ 2006 and 2011 World Series championships. He has made only three starts this season after returning from a major shoulder injury. Carpenter is a career 9-2 with a 3.05 ERA in 15 postseason starts. Jackson is 1-1 with a 4.91 ERA over seven postseason games, four of them starts.
Ross Detwiler, like the rest of the Nationals rotation except for Edwin Jackson, will be making his first postseason start. The left-hander had the best season of his career, mastering how to use his sinker and fastball en route to a 10-win, 3.40 ERA season. He has never pitched this much in the majors and his final two starts of the season were subpar. Kyle Lohse, who started the one-game wild card game, is also a groundout pitcher. The right-hander, at 34, also posted the best season of his career, finishing with a 2.86 ERA.
The Nationals are the sixth team Johnson has taken to the postseason, while this is the first season in Matheny’s managing career. Johnson’s impact has been felt not only in-game but off the field, where players have fed off of his confidence and trust his baseball mind. Come playoff time, Johnson is a shrewd tactician who is willing to tinker with game situations to take advantage of matchups. Matheny, a former Gold Glove catcher, often jokes about his lack of managerial experience. Johnson has edge over Matheny, with a sharp acumen and feel for needed moves.