The St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals will meet in the National League Championship Series. St. Louis blew the Atlanta Braves out of the Division Series in the first inning of Game Five on Wednesday 9th May. A few hours later, a Howie Kendrick Grand Slam guaranteed an extra-innings win for the Nationals against the favoured Los Angeles Dodgers.
Only a handful of baseball fans would have picked the Cardinals and Nationals to face-off in a best-of-seven series this October. Plenty rated the two teams highly – and rightly so – but the Dodgers were meant to be a lock. The Braves are really good. The Cubs and Brewers stood in the way for St. Louis. Who knew what the Mets and Phillies would be.
Washington started the season appallingly. So bad, in fact, the thought of trading Max Scherzer wasn’t in the same realm as pigs flying.
On 15th June, the Nationals were fourth in the East, five games behind Philadelphia. The Cardinals were 3.5 back in the Central behind the Brewers and Cubs who were tied for first.
An inconsistent Brewers ballclub left the door ajar for the Cardinals. A September crumbling from the Cubs allowed them to claim the division on the back of a superb run of post-All-Star form.
While the Braves kept a comfortable lead in the East, the Phillies and Mets couldn’t live with the Nationals. The wildcard was secured with time to spare. After a troubled start, Washington won games at a division-winning rate. This roster had the look of a postseason team in March, but it was only on 9th October that they proved themselves as legitimate contenders, finally breaking their Division Series duck.
St Louis just do their thing. They find production from unlikely sources, players step up. Tommy Edman chalked up 3.8 bWAR. Jack Flaherty was the best pitcher in baseball after the break, Paul Goldschmidt – as he did in 2018 – found his swing in the second half.
While these aren’t two overachievers as such (their rosters are worthy of being a series away from the World Series), they have defied expectations. Both were 2-1 down in the Division Series. Both faced Game Fives on the road. The Braves and Dodgers were favoured pre-series.
It’s not that their position is unwarranted, it’s the nature of postseason baseball. It’s meant to be unpredictable, the sport is the same, but it’s different from the regular season. The National League Division Series were dramatic, all four teams experienced highs and lows. Unexpected players starred, big names disappointed. This is what playoff baseball is about.
We can look at these two and claim good fortune. That opponent’s pitching decisions handed them victory, or a bloop here and there changed the course of the series. Or, we can see it as two very good teams who held their nerve and despite fewer wins in the regular season, were every bit as impressive as their now defeated rivals.
Of seven postseason series in 2018, only one reached a winner-takes-all game. We’ve already had three in 2019. We’ve got a National League Championship Series pairing that few expected in March, no one envisaged in May and seemed improbable even a few days ago.
This has already been a brilliant playoffs. Let’s hope it continues in the same manner – who would rule out a seven-game thriller between the Cards and Nats?