Posted October 12, 2012

NLDS Game 5 preview: Cardinals at Nationals

Division Series, NLDS, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Nationals
Adam Wainwright

Adam Wainwright got a no-decision in Game 1 but he outdueled the Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez. (ZUMApress.com)

Cardinals at Nationals

Series: NLDS Game 5, series tied 2-2

Time: 8:30 PM EST

TV: TBS

Starters: Adam Wainwright (14-13, 3.94 ERA) vs. Gio Gonzalez (21-8, 2.89 ERA)

Faced with the possibility of elimination, the Nationals rose to the occasion on Thursday. Despite an awkward matchup against the Cardinals’ righty bats, lefty Ross Detwiler delivered the team’s first quality start of the postseason, holding the league’s most potent offense to three singles over six innings and allowing one run — an unearned one, at that. Kyle Lohse was every bit as stingy, surrendering only two hits, one of them Adam LaRoche’s solo homer, over seven innings. It all came down to the bottom of the ninth, where Jayson Werth won an epic 13-pitch battle with Lance Lynn by hitting a 405-foot homer into the St. Louis bullpen to win 2-1 and knot the series at two games apiece. That Lynn was in the game instead of Motte was a headscratcher given that he had been touched for a pair of homers in his otherwise big three-inning stint in relief of Jaime Garcia in Game 2; Motte has thrown just one inning in this series, and manager Mike Matheny had already been second-guessed for not going to him instead of lefty Mark Rzepczynski in Game 1.

Speaking of Game 1, Game 5 is a rematch between the two pitchers who started the series opener. Though Washington won the game late against the Cardinals’ bullpen, Wainwright was by far the more effective of the starters. Over 5 2/3 innings, he struck out 10 hitters, nine of them with a nasty curveball that generated a total of 14 swings and misses out of the 28 he threw. Danny Espinosa fell victim three times, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman twice apiece; of the six hits he allowed, all were singles, and only Ian Desmond went back for seconds.

It was Wainwright’s second start of the year in which he reached double digits in K’s, but it came at a cost, as Matheny hooked him at exactly 100 pitches in favor of Lynn. Indeed, in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, the 31-year-old righty has been kept on a short leash, particularly down the stretch; after his 12-strikeout, 105-pitch effort against the Astros on Aug. 21, he reached 100 pitches only once in six of his final seven starts, and was hit for a 5.17 ERA in that span, with upticks in both his walk rate and already-high BABIP. As noted previously, for the year, his peripherals (0.7 homers, 2.4 walks and 8.3 strikeouts per nine) were right in line with his Cy Young-caliber pre-Tommy John 2009 and 2010 seasons; the main difference in his performance was a .320 BABIP, 29 points higher than that span. He’s still an ace.

If Wainwright’s curveball baffled Washington’s hitters, Gonzalez’s hook fooled almost no one. Of the 19 he threw in Game 1, none generated a strikeout; just three went for called strikes, and none were even swings and misses. Whether he was overcome by adrenaline or simply battling his mechanics, Gonzalez’s control deserted him to the point that he walked seven hitters, one shy of the wild-card era postseason record. Augmented by a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly, four of the walks came during a 37-pitch second-inning meltdown in which he allowed two runs, but other than that, he did keep the Cardinals off the scoreboard. He struck out five — three via a four-seam fastball that ranked fifth among lefty starters this year in terms of velocity, and sixth in terms of whiffs per swing (23.1 percent) — and yielded only one hit in his five innings, a single by David Freese.

The Nationals are tied in this series despite being outscored 23-9 and outhit .256/.365/.450 to .215/.285/.323; the Cardinals have a 21-13 edge in walks and a 5-4 edge in homers. Desmond is 7-for-16, Zimmermann 6-for-16 with a homer, LaRoche 3-for-13 with four walks and two homers and Werth 4-for-16 with three walks and a homer. Espinosa, though, is 1-for-12, Kurt Suzuki 1-for-13, Mike Morse 3-for-15 and Bryce Harper 1-for-18 with six strikeouts. Harper has yet to draw a walk, but he’s battled deep in counts to the point of averaging 4.3 pitches per plate appearance, and  manager Davey Johnson has shown enough patience to leave him in the number two spot. For the Cardinals, Allen Craig and David Freese are both 6-for-15 with six extra base hits between them (including Craig’s Game 2 homer), Carlos Beltran’s 5-for-15 with a double, two homers and three walks, and number eight hitter Pete Kozma is 4-for-11 with five walks and two extra-base hits, including a big three-run homer in Game 3. The only big bats who have been more or less shut down are Matt Holliday (3-for-16) and Yadier Molina (2-for-14); both punished lefthanded hitting this year with identical OPSes of 1.021, so Gonzalez is hardly out of the woods.

With Thursday’s results, the home team is just 8-10 in this year’s Division Series, and 0-2 in Game 5. On the other hand, the home teams have four walk-off wins, including two where the opposing manager decided against using his closer in a tie game on the road. Matheny made that mistake on Thursday. You can bet he won’t do it again on Friday.

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