In NLCS vs. Nationals, Cardinals may have edge in defense and bullpen

The Cardinals host the Nationals in the first two games of the National League Championship Series on Friday and Saturday at Busch Stadium.

The Cardinals, in the postseason for the first time since 2015, beat the Braves 13-1 with a history-making 10-run first inning in Game 5 of their NL Division Series in Atlanta. Ironically, the explosion of runs was 51 years ago to the day that Detroit scored 10 runs in the sixth inning against the Cardinals in a 13-1 Game 6 World Series win in the original Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright sensed nervousness in the Cardinals clubhouse before Game 5 in Atlanta. So he organized a putting contest in the hallway outside the clubhouse and players said the distraction relaxed them. Wainwright, Dakota Hudson, John Gant and Miles Mikolas took part. No one knows for sure who won.

The Nationals shed the ghosts of playoffs past and beat the Dodgers 7-3 in Game 5 of their NLDS in Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers beat them in Game 5 of the NLDS in 2016 at Nationals Park.

Now the Nationals get a chance to redeem themselves against the Cardinals, the team that beat them in Nationals' first postseason appearance in 2012, starting a string of October losses that also included postseason against the Cubs and Giants.

In a nutshell, the Nationals have the edge in the rotation and lineup. St. Louis has the advantage in defense and the bullpen. The Cardinals won the season series 5-2.

Here are things to know about the Cardinals:

* Mikolas will pitch Game 1 for the Cardinals followed by Wainwright, Jack Flaherty and Hudson. If there is a Game 7, Flaherty, with a 0.71 WHIP and a 0.91 ERA in the second half, is scheduled to pitch and that game will be in St. Louis. Mikolas had two six-inning starts against the Nationals this season, giving up one run in one and three in the second in September. "It's good to have them fresh in my mind,'' Mikolas says.

* The Cardinals have their rotation set so that Wainwright potentially pitches at home twice, Game 2 and Game 6. That's where he has a 2.56 ERA for the season. Wainwright has been a reliable starter for the Cardinals, especially in the final month when he posted a 2.97 ERA. This could be his final season. As a rookie in 2006, Wainwright was a closer and pitched the final outs of the Cardinals' NLCS win against Houston and World Series win against Boston. His most famous strikeout came as the final out with the bases loaded against Carlos Beltran in Game 7. Wainwright's 1,776 strikeouts are second-most to Hall of Famer Bob Gibson on the Cardinals' all-time list.

* The Cardinals rotation had a 1.78 ERA in their five-game series against the Braves.

* The Cardinals were 44-44 through the first half of the season. They finished with a 47-27 record in the second half.

* The Cardinals won the NL with 91 victories and their 12th consecutive winning season. The Cardinals and the Yankees are the only current teams with that many winning seasons.

* When the playoffs arrive, the Cardinals are regular participants. This is their 13th postseason since 2000. They lost to the Cubs in the 2015 Division Series, to the Giants in the 2014 NLCS and to the Red Sox in the 2013 World Series.

* The Cardinals finished 10th in the NL in runs (764), 12th in home runs (210), 11th in on-base percentage (.372) and 11th in OPS (.737), Their run differential of plus-102 was the fourth-best in the NL.

* Their run differential speaks to their improved defense. They set a franchise record for fewest errors, 66, and led the NL with a .998 fielding percentage. A year ago, the Cardinals led the majors with 133 errors.

* The Cardinals' 116 steals for the season tied the Nationals for most in the NL. Kolten Wong led the Cards with 24. Rookie Tommy Edman, who came up midseason from the minors and plays either third base or right field, stole 15.

* First baseman Paul Goldschmidt, acquired in a trade from Arizona before the season, led the Cardinals with 34 home runs. Shortstop Paul DeJong 30 and Marcell Ozuna 29.

* When he played for Arizona, Goldschmidt was often an NL MVP candidate. This year, his first in St. Louis, he was up and down, although he had a .954 OPS during September and was .9-for-23 in five games against Atlanta.

* This is hard to believe, but the Cardinals won the NL Central without a 100-RBI guy. Goldschmidt's 97 RBIs was the highest on the team.

* In an era of home runs, the Cardinals turn back the clock with situational hitting. They beat Atlanta in Game 4 of the NLDS on a sacrifice fly by Yadier Molina. Their famous 10-run first-inning rally against the Braves in Game 5 happened without a home run. In fact, the second hitter of the inning, Kolten Wong, bunted so that Dexter Fowler, who had walked, could move to second.

* While Nationals manager Davey Martinez has confidence in only two relievers - Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson - Cardinals manager Mike Shildt has a few more options and thus St. Louis has a bullpen advantage. The Cardinals could close with two-time All-Star Carlos Martinez, who had shoulder issues as a starter, and lefty Andrew Miller. The Cardinals also have an extra lefty Tyler Webb, who has a 0.69 WHIP in the second half. The Cardinals also have Giovanny Gallegos, who has dominated both left- and right-handed batters and struck out 35 in his previous 33 1/3 innings. John Brebbia is also solid. Opponents had a .365 slugging percentage against the St. Louis bullpen and a .670 OPS. Both are the lowest marks in either league.

* Speaking of comparisons to legendary Gibson, the Cardinals' best pitcher, Flaherty, has held opponents to a .192 average, second-best in history behind Gibson, who, in 1968, held opponents to a .164 average. Also, Flaherty's 231 strikeouts on the season rank sixth for a single season for the Cardinals. The top five strikeout seasons all belong to Gibson.

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