NLDS Game 4 previews: Cardinals at Pirates; Braves at Dodgers
Both of the National League Division Series could come to an end on Monday as the Pirates and the Dodgers each need just one more win to advance. Yet, although both series stand at 2-1, one is close to even while the other has thus far been heavily lopsided.
Cardinals at Pirates
Start time: 3:00 p.m. ET
Series: Pirates lead 2-1
Starting pitchers: Michael Wacha (4-1, 2.78 ERA) vs. Charlie Morton (7-4, 3.26 ERA)
The Pirates got the win they had to have in Game 3, but just because they will now have two chances for the one victory they need to eliminate the Cardinals and move on to the National League Championship Series doesn’t mean the pressure is off. Adam Wainwright, who dominated Pittsburgh for seven innings in Game 1, still lurks for Game 5, which puts the onus on the Pirates to win this game and render Wainwright irrelevant. That means both teams will be playing as if their backs are against the wall in this game.
Coming off a painful Game 3 loss in which they survived Francisco Liriano only to give up the winning runs in the bottom of the eighth, St. Louis is giving the ball to 22-year-old rookie Michael Wacha, who was the 19th overall pick in last June’s amateur draft. Wacha, a product of Texas A&M, didn’t become a permanent part of the Cardinals rotation until September, but his strong finish (1.72 ERA in five September starts including a near no-hitter against the Nationals in his last start), success against the Pirates (9 IP, 2 H, 0 R in one start and one relief appearance), and comparatively low workload (149 2/3 innings in the majors and minors combined this season) have earned him the start over fellow rookie righty Shelby Miller (173 1/3 innings pitched on the season and 10 runs allowed in 10 1/3 innings over his last two starts against the Pirates, both coming in August). The 6-foot-6 Wacha throws in the mid-90s with a mid- to upper-80s changeup and a sharp curve.
Opposing Wacha will be groundballer Charlie Morton, who returned from Tommy John surgery in mid-June and went 4-1 with a 2.67 ERA over his final 11 regular season starts. The very large caveat to those numbers is that by far his worst start among those 11 came against the Cardinals and saw Morton allow five runs in just 1 2/3 innings. Morton had a quality start against the Cards in mid-August, but he also gave up five runs to them (in six innings) in his lone start against the Redbirds in Pittsburgh this season, Overall, he went 0-2 with a 7.90 ERA in three outings against St. Louis on the season, easily his worst performance against any single opponent.
Given the above and the presence of Wainwright, this series is as close to even as any could be after three games. Indeed, the aggregate score of the first three games was 13-13 and the two team’s batting lines are nearly identical. Both have scored 13 runs, hit three home runs and five doubles, drawn 10 walks and reached base at a .306 clip. The Pirates have 22 hits in 95 at-bats. The Cardinals have 21 hits in 96 at-bats. The biggest difference is that the Pirates have 23 strikeouts to the Cardinals’ 16. The Pirates are one win away from taking it, but this is still anybody’s series.
Braves at Dodgers
Start time: 9:30 p.m. ET
Series: Dodgers lead 2-1
Starting pitchers: Freddy Garcia (4-7, 4.37 ERA) vs. Ricky Nolasco (13-11, 3.70 ERA)
As encouraging as the Cardinals’ situation is despite being down 2-1 in a best-three-out-of-five series, the Braves’ is that discouraging. One more loss will end Atlanta’s season, and they have Freddy Garcia pitching in Game 4 and would have to face Clayton Kershaw in Game 5.
Garcia’s deathless career has this year taken him from the Padres, who released him at the end of spring training, through the Orioles, with whom he went 3-5 with a 5.77 ERA in 10 starts and one relief outing, to the Braves, who purchased him from Baltimore on Aug. 23. Along the way, Garcia made more starts this season in Triple-A (14, including a disaster outing in his lone start for the Gwinnett Braves) than in the majors (13). Garcia has pitched well in three relief outings and three starts since being called up to Atlanta at the start of September, but he’s a coin balanced on its edge ready to tip over at any moment.
Since joining the Phillies in 2007, Garcia, who turned 37 on Sunday, has passed through eight organizations, two of whom he never pitched for during the regular season. He’s posted a 4.54 ERA (95 ERA+) in that time while allowing 1.4 home runs per nine innings, roughly 40 percent more than the league average, and lost his one other postseason start during that stretch, when he gave up four runs in 5 1/3 innings to the Tigers as a Yankee in the 2011 ALDS.
The straw to grasp on to for Braves fans is that Garcia didn’t throw his sinker with Baltimore but has made it his primary pitch since joining Atlanta, improving his groundball rate and dropping his home run rate as a result. One can see a similar effect, in the opposite order, in Garcia’s 2011 season with the Yankees, when he posted a 3.09 ERA and allowed just 10 home runs through his first 21 starts of the season while throwing more sinkers than four-seamers. Then, after missing time due to accidentally slicing his fingers with a kitchen knife, he threw fewer sinkers and posted a 7.21 ERA with seven home runs allowed over his final five starts, including the postseason outing mentioned above.
To be fair, that might be more encouraging than the report on Dodgers starter Ricky Nolasco, who gave up 19 runs (17 earned) in 12 innings in his final three starts of the regular season. Prior to that, Nolasco had gone 8-1 with a 2.07 ERA in his first dozen starts for L.A., though that performance is no more representative of who Nolasco is as a pitcher, which is a league average innings eater who throws his low-80s slider more often than any other pitch.
Having come over from the Marlins in early July, Nolasco has seen a lot of the Braves in his career, particularly Brian McCann, who has hit eight home runs off him in 61 career plate appearances (which paces out to 80 home runs in 610 PA) and Jayson Heyward, who has hit .348/.444/.652 in 27 career PA against Nolasco. Nolasco did have a strong outing in his lone start against the Braves this year (7 IP, 2 R, 0 BB, 7 K, with a solo home run by, naturally, McCann), but even with that start, he is 6-10 with a 5.11 ERA against them in his career.
Ultimately, this game may just come down to which team is swinging the bats better, and if their 13-run outburst in Game 3 wasn’t evidence enough, lately that’s been the Dodgers. L.A. has hit .333/.390/.524 as a team in this series with four home runs. The Braves have hit .221/.308/.284 with one homer. That’s not close.