2012 St. Louis Cardinals Playoff Preview Q&A With Derrick Goold
Matthew Tufts: The St. Louis Cardinals own the third-best batting average against the Nationals this season, hitting .268 over the course of seven games. However, Washington had the best team ERA in the National League during the regular season. Do you see this series playing out as an offensive slugfest or more of a series of pitchers' duels?
Derrick Gold: As soon as I say pitchers' duels, this series will go berserk with offense. That's how it works, right? It wouldn't be outrageous to imagine one of these games going haywire and the power of these two offenses taking over. Heck, it could happen twice. There are nine players in these two lineups with at least 20 homers. The Cardinals have their five 20-plus sluggers bunched in the middle of the lineup. The Nationals have them spread throughout, and one of the middle-order hitters without 20 had a strong September.
Pitching, however, will still determine this series. I think the Cardinals' rotation found its footing late in the year, and the addition of Chris Carpenter and use of Jaime Garcia at home strengthens this Cardinals' starting pitching. Some things to keep in mind is how Gio Gonzalez has held the Cardinals' right-handed thumpers to a two-for-23 turn against him this season, while the three starters Washington will use after Gonzalez have a 9.00+ ERA in five starts against the Cardinals. It's important to note how decisions made during the regular season will influence this series and the pitching duels/influence that could develop. One team, Washington, shut down its pitcher who had Tommy John surgery, righty Stephen Strasburg. The other team, the Cardinals, will get two starts from its pitcher who had Tommy John surgery. That could be the difference.
The Cardinals were 1-3 against the Nationals in Washington this year, but 2-1 at home. Will this year's new 2-3 playoff format benefit the Cardinals, and if so, to what extent?
Goold: This year's wacky 2-3 playoff format will certainly benefit the Cardinals. It's going to switch back to the more reasonable and fair 2-2-1 format next year, but this year it caters to the lower seed because of what the higher seed has to pull off. Imagine if the lower seed sweeps the first two games. The higher seed has to sweep a series - no easy feat in the regular season against a middle-of-the-road club, let alone against a postseason team.
How this plays into the Cardinals' chances is the rotation the Cardinals are able to set up. They can get Adam Wainwright to lead off the series for them in Game 1, go to homebody Garcia in Game 2, and then Chris Carpenter in that marble-game of Game 3. That's pretty favorable considering the Nats had the best record in the National League and by any measure shouldn't have been the team not knowing where it was headed to open the postseason on Friday. Washington played the 162-game schedule better than anybody and doesn't get to set the tone for the series. That seems wrong. The Cardinals are poised to take advantage.
Both the Cardinals and Nationals have been praised for their deep, solid starting rotations. What is the biggest difference between the two rotations, and does one have an advantage?
Goold: I hinted at the biggest difference between the two rotations earlier. Two words: Stephen Strasburg. In a short series like this the lack of a bona fide ace like Strasburg will be acute for the Nationals. Gonzalez has had a superb season, but he has no playoff experience and I'm struck by the fact that he averaged less than 6.1 innings per start and had only, I think, four starts of seven innings or more in the season's second half. Edwin Jackson does have playoff experience - most of it coming last year with the Cardinals - but he doesn't appear until Game 3. The Cardinals have Carpenter who pitched two clinchers for the Cardinals a year ago, and Wainwright who has been successful in the playoffs as both a starter and a closer. It's hard not to think having Strasburg available for one start - let alone the possibility of two - would tilt the advantage back to the Nationals. But he's not. Wainwright is.
Washington is a young team with little playoff experience. The Cardinals boast a squad that returned almost three-quarters of last year's World Series roster. How large of a role will experience play in this series, and do the Cardinals still have the necessary desire after winning last season?
Goold: I don't think there is a finite amount of desire in a team. It doesn't use it up one year and not get it back the next. If anything, the desire to repeat fuels a team. Plus, as many players as the Cardinals have returning from 2011 it still feels like a different team, and they've drawn motivation from the biggest differences of all. There is no Albert Pujols. There is no Tony La Russa. There are players who would like to show that they had big roles in the 2011 World Series championship and they were a team that went well beyond the two most famous/successful personalities. No, desire doesn't run out. It just continues, changes, grows with each new season.
St. Louis has been lauded for its balanced lineup. Last year, David Freese hit a walk-off homer in Game 6 of the World Series while batting sixth. He went on to win World Series MVP. Who, of the Cardinal's 6-8 hitters, has the best chance to echo Freese's postseason success?
Goold: Well, can I say David Freese? He's back in the No. 6 spot in the order. He brings 20 homers to that spot. He's got a nose for RBIs. Seems like he's the guy again. A quick word though on what Freese did last year: There will be no echoing. Freese had a record-setting October last year. He went on a productive jag like few hitters before him. That's not something that will be echoed too often, not by a No. 6 hitter, not by a No. 7 hitter, and not from a No. 3 hitter. Freese just had a sublime October. He could have a productive October this year and it would be a suitable encore. No records necessary.
The Cardinals led the league in on-base percentage during the regular season. First baseman Allen Craig led major league baseball with a .403 average with runners in scoring position. Has this year's Cardinal offense changed from the home run-heavy days of Albert Pujols to small-ball, situational hitting, and if so, is it better?
Goold: I never saw this team as home-run heavy. I've been on the beat since 2004 and only twice have I seen the Cardinals finish in the top five in total homers, and the last time was when they hit the fifth-most in 2006. Pujols' influence on the offense was obvious, as was how his increasing total of homers there invented the team's overall reputation. Don't get me wrong. This isn't a small-ball club either. This is a grinding team. This is a team that will happily take a walk if the pitcher gives it. This is a team that has opposite field power from Freese and Craig, and two All-Star, MVP-caliber hitters in Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday. They are streaky. They do struggle with situational hitting. This is a flawed lineup that sometimes can be less than the sum of its parts. It's a baffling offense in that regard. They go big or they struggle. They don't do small and that could be part of their inconsistency. Since Mark McGwire took over as hitting coach, they really have been what Albert Pujols was throughout his career. Not a home run, but an OPS monster, a true, complete hitter who had a high OBP, a lot of thump, and the ability to put the ball out of the park, but that wasn't the only way they'd score a run.
Yadier Molina's name has been thrown around in the MVP discussion after a stellar year behind and at the plate. Defensively, Molina has thrown out 45 percent of runners attempting to steal this season. How important is this dynamic to the Cardinals, and does it have additional significance in playoff games where a key stolen base can be the difference-maker?
Goold: I suppose it could. There are some teams in baseball that readily admit that they don't run against the Cardinals, and it's not just because of Yadier Molina. The pitchers all work on being quick to plate as well, and the Cardinals demand a certain speed of delivery from all of the pitchers. It's something they work on - stopwatches in hand - during spring training, as many teams do. Think of all the ways Molina's ability to throw out runners does influence the game. He has the arm strength and the guile to call for a breaking ball and still believe he can get a runner out at second. There are catchers who with a speed threat on first base can't help but call fastballs in order to get the pitch in quicker and get ready to fire down to second. Molina doesn't have to break stride from his plan. If you want to know the most important dynamic that Molina brings, it’s perhaps his ability to call the game and eagerness to shepherd, cajole, or grab-by-the-nose-and-lead the pitcher through. That’s where the Cardinals really benefit from Molina's expertise and instincts behind the plate.
Goold: It is difficult see how the 2-3 format and the absence of Strasburg don't influence this series and leave there for the Cardinals to take. Let's go Cardinals in five because what the heck everybody loves a series that goes the distance.
Reach Staff Writer Matthew Tufts here.