The St. Louis Cardinals won the tight race in the NL Central and broke a three-season playoff draught. They will face the NL East winners, the Atlanta Braves in the National League Division Series beginning on Wednesday. Atlanta is the favorite in the series as they look to advance past the division series for the first time since 2001. Is this the year for Atlanta or will the Cardinals get the upset after a strong finish to the season?
NLDS Preview – St. Louis Cardinals vs. Atlanta Braves
|National League Division Series
|Date and Time: Game 1 slated for Thursday, October 3, 2019
|Location: SunTrust Park and Busch Stadium
|2019 MLB Betting Odds at Betcris: Check Back Later
|Cardinals vs. Braves 2019 MLB TV Coverage: TBS
With the NL Central still uncliched going into Sunday, the Cardinals sent Jack Flaherty to the mound to help ensure they took the division. That likely pushes the St. Louis ace back to start Game 2 of the NLDS. If the series goes five, he’d still get two starts.
Along with Flaherty, the Cardinals other starting pitching options are Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright, and Dakota Hudson. Mike Shildt will have the option to go with a four-man rotation or double-up on a second starter in addition to Flaherty, whoever gets the nod in Game 1.
Overall, the Cardinals rotation is a solid group. Despite a 11-8 record, Flaherty is the clear-cut ace. He’s been nearly unhittable in the second half and is throwing the ball exceptionally well. Since the All-Star break, the 23-year old right-hander has made 15 starts and tossed 99.1 innings. In that time, he’s posted a 0.91 ERA and 0.715 WHIP with a 11.2 K:9 ratio and 5.39 K:BB.
On the baseball season, he’s accumulated a WAR of 6.0 and has a 2.75 ERA, 0.968 WHIP and 3.46 FIP in 196.1 innings. His WHIP leads the NL. In two starts against the Braves, the Cardinals’ second year hurler is 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA in 12 innings of work.
Flaherty will be in the discussion for NL Cy Young and likely a top-three finisher. That’s a nice piece in a short series. Beyond him, Hudson has been the next best starter. The now 24-year old pitched out of the bullpen last year but earned a starting spot in the spring and ran with it. He has made 33 appearances, including 32 starts, with a 3.35 ERA. His 1.408 WHIP and 4.93 FIP indicate a bit of luck as he has walked 86 batters in 174.2 innings to just 136 strikeouts. That’s a 1.58 K:BB ratio.
Despite the lackluster peripherals, Hudson has thrived by inducing weak contact. He’s worked around his walks and the Cardinals are 23-10 when he takes the ball. He’s also coming off a five-inning shutout against the Cubs. Alongside the two young arms, the Cardinals have two veterans taking the ball in Wainwright and Mikolas.
Mikolas was a Cy Young contender himself last year with a league leading 18 wins and a 2.83 ERA. This year, he led the NL with 14 losses and pitched to a 4.16 ERA, but that still left him with a 103 ERA+.
A control artist, Mikolas doesn’t walk many and won’t give the Braves many free base runners. Just as positive, he’s been a better second half pitcher this year with a 3.72 ERA since the break and is trending in the right direct. If he can get a start at home, that’s even better given his 3.01 home ERA in his 15 starts there.
Finishing up the Cardinals rotation with Wainwright, there’s no doubt his best years are in the rearview mirror, but the 37-year old right-hander had a bit of a renaissance this season going 14-10 with a 4.19 ERA. He’s not an elite starter anymore, but the right-hander knows how to win and how to battle. He’ll give the Cards a chance to win.
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The Braves counter the Cardinals collection of solid arms with their own group led by a youngster, in their case 22-year old Mike Soroka. It was quite the rookie season for the right-hander. In 29 starts, Soroka went 13-4 with a 2.68 ERA and 1.111 WHIP and tossed 174.2 innings. Fatigue is a concern, but he’s pitched well down the stretch despite more innings than he’s thrown in his career.
Over his last 12 starts, Soroka has allowed more than three runs just once—giving up four back on September 8. He faced the Cardinals in May and went six innings of one-run ball.
Given his youth and workload to this point in the baseball season, Soroka projects to start the third game of the series with Dallas Kuechel starting Game 1 and Mike Foltynewicz starting Game 2. It’s also helpful that Game 3 is on the road where Soroka ha a 1.35 ERA this season, the best in the league.
In this scenario, Kuechel and Foltynewicz would each start two games if all five games are needed though Julio Teheran is another option though he has struggled his last few starts. Max Fried is also probably out of the pen despite a 17-win season. Back to Kuechel and Foltynewicz, the two former Astros each bring a bit more experience compared to Soroka. Kuechel is the most battle tested of the starters. He won a World Series with Houston a couple years ago and has a 3.31 postseason ERA in 10 games.
This season he went 8-8 with a 3.75 ERA after sitting out the first couple months. He only made 19 starts and threw 112.2 innings so he should be fresh for the playoffs compared to those that pitched the entire season. He’s been a great pitcher at home with a 2.74 ERA. He is, however, coming off a less-than-stellar start.
As for Foltynewicz, he started the season injured and came off the IL struggling. He eventually was demoted to the minors, but since coming back has been a different pitcher. With a 100 ERA+ he has been the definition of a league-average starter this season, but prior to a rough start—and a loss—against the Mets in his last start where he went four innings and allowed three runs, Folty combined to go 26 innings and allow only two runs. Foltynewicz faced the Cardinals twice this year, allowing eight runs in 4.2 innings in one starts and no earned runs in six innings in the other.
The Cardinals have the second-best bullpen ERA in the National League behind the Dodgers at 3.82. That’s a few places ahead of the Braves and their 4.18 bullpen ERA. Despite a key injury to Jordan Hicks, the Cardinals’ bullpen kept chugging along. Carlos Martinez’s return to the pen was a big help, of course, as he pitched to a 3.17 ERA and 24 saves in 48.1 innings, securing the closer’s role and allowing Giovanny Gallegos, John Brebbia and others to do their thing in less pressure roles.
Overall, this has been a reliable unit all season, though it’s been a bit less of a given of late. Key guys like Brebbia and Andrew Miller have seen their ERA’s balloon north of seven here down the stretch. It’s been a truly terrible September for John Gant. This Cardinals pen, on paper, is a strength, but going into the playoffs, many of the options that were lockdown for much of the season have been questionable at best.
Meanwhile, on the other side of this matchup, the Braves bullpen had a rough stretch following the trade deadline when they brought in Shane Greene, Mark Melancon, and Chris Martin to stabilize things.
It took some time, but the Braves’ pen seems to have come together nicely. Melancon is getting the ninth inning work while Greene, Luke Jackson and Sean Newcomb have been good set up option. Chris Martin is throwing better now and provides a different look for hitters. Fried is probably also available out of the pen.
The numbers favor the Cardinals in the bullpen and the starting staffs rank rather evenly, but offensively—at least by the season numbers—the Braves appear to have the upper-hand, that is of course until you look at the September numbers where the St. Louis offense has stepped up its game.
Still, the Braves have a strong lineup though Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley aren’t swinging that well right now. Guys like Matt Joyce and Adam Duvall, however, are helping make up for it. Same can be said about Adeiny Hechivarria who could steal some ABs from Swanson.
In the end, however, it comes down to the big three with the Braves. Guys like Ozzie Albies, Nick Markakis, and the rest make nice role players, but the Braves lineup lives and dies with Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson and Ronald Acuna Jr. Freeman is as clutch as they come with 121 RBI and 38 homers to go with a .295/.389/.549 slash line. Meanwhile, Donaldson has a .900 OPS and 37 dingers. Acuna has a .883 OPS to go with 41 home runs, 127 runs, 101 RBI, and 37 stolen bases. Speaking of steals, the Braves have a great pitch runner option to help win games, too, in Billy Hamilton.
The Cardinals don’t have a single player that can match the OPS of any one of Freeman, Donaldson or Acuna. Tommy Edman leds the team in OPS+ with 120 and he’s only played 92 games. Paul Goldschmidt is hitting well now after a cold start and Marcell Ozuna is a good second piece in the middle of the order, but the Braves have the more elite hitters.
Odds Analysis and Recent Trends
The Braves aren’t exactly playing their best baseball going into October. After clinching the division early, Atlanta skidded down the stretch, losing three-straight to Mets to close the season and dropping eight of 12.
Obviously, a bad finish to the regular season doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the playoffs, but it is worth watching. Atlanta will hope the time off before the start of the NLDS will give them some time to reset and get ready to play like they were at the end of August and into the beginning of September.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, slid a bit down the stretch, too. The team turned in on in the second half to make the playoffs going 47-27, but they lost four of their last five games, winning the season finale to clinch the division title. Head-to-head, the Braves beat the Cardinals in four of their six games this season.
St. Louis Cardinals vs. Atlanta Braves Free Picks
The Braves are the better team based on statistics. The only area the Cardinals have an edge is out of the bullpen where they’ve regressed over the last month of the season. That said, this offense is better than the numbers suggest. Goldschmidt and Ozuna are a nice duo in the middle and the rest of the team should come together to scratch across a few runs and keep the games close.
With as good as Flaherty as been, look for him to keep it going against the Braves—at least in his first start against them—and steal the win. Behind him, however, Hudson’s peripherals show he’s beatable and both Mikolas and Wainwright have been better in previous seasons. Look for Acuna, Donaldson, and Freeman to carry the Braves offense to victory with Ozzie Albies having a big series as well.
St. Louis Cardinals vs. Atlanta Braves Series Pick: Look for the Braves to win the series, but the Cardinals to make it a tough battle down to the final out.
St. Louis Cardinals vs. Atlanta Braves Series Prediction: Braves in Five of the Cardinals
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