NLDS Preview: Cardinals vs. Braves

It will be difficult to follow up on the tension, drama, and thrilling finish that took place on Tuesday night in the National League Wild Card Game between the Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers. But this NLDS series will provide plenty of excitement in its own way. The Atlanta Braves will play host to the NL Central Division winners, the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Braves will return to the playoffs for the second year in a row, but they will be striving for a better result after being eliminated in the first round in four games by the Los Angeles Dodgers last season. This Braves team has the tools to do just that, and they enter the 2019 postseason as one of the most dangerous teams in the NL field. Their potent lineup, led by Ronald Acuna Jr., Josh Donaldson, and Freddie Freeman, fueled the team to a 97-win regular season. Combined with some key late-season acquisitions such as Dallas Keuchel and Shane Greene, the Braves bolstered their already powerful roster to prepare for a deeper postseason run.

The Cardinals will be returning to the postseason for the first time since 2015, when they were swiftly eliminated by their division rivals, the Chicago Cubs, in four games in the first round. The Cardinals were engaged in a season-long, back-and-forth war of attrition with the Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers for control of the NL Central. Thanks to the addition of slugger Paul Goldschmidt, as well as the emergence of young stars Dakota Hudson and Jack Flaherty in the starting rotation, the Cardinals were able to outlast their division rivals and win their division.

Here are the deciding factors to the series and which team will ultimately advance to the NL Championship Series.

Deciding Factors:

How will Flaherty and Hudson React to the Big Stage?

Flaherty and Hudson were instrumental in helping the Cardinals reach the playoffs. The two youngest members of the Cardinals starting rotation combined for 27 wins this season and helped stabilize what was an otherwise inconsistent rotation. This will be the pair’s first taste of playoff baseball, and they head into their first postseason with high expectations from one of baseball’s most passionate fan bases.

Not only will Flaherty and Hudson be expected to perform at a high level, but they will have to do so against one of baseball’s most fearsome lineups. How will these two young, emerging stars fare as they stare down the likes of Acuna, Donaldson, and Freeman? The Braves offense is their most prominent weapon, and two of the Cardinals’ youngest players will be tasked with trying to shut it down and giving their team a chance to win.

Can the Cardinals Score Enough Runs to Win?

The Cardinals offense will be just as big of a question mark as their pitching staff in this series. They finished the season with a run differential of +102, which is the lowest number of any division winner in baseball this season. While they were given a boost by the arrival of Goldschmidt, his addition wasn’t enough to lift the rest of the lineup around him.

The Cardinals can at least rely on a steady output of power thanks to the likes of Goldschmidt, Paul DeJong, and Marcell Ozuna. However, they will need contributions from other members of their lineup such as Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, and Harrison Bader, all of whom had a below-average regular season. Atlanta has a strong pitching staff but not an infallible one. The Cardinals could also benefit from having several veteran hitters who have experience in the postseason and know how to elevate their game in October. Regardless, a Cardinals offense that struggled all season to score runs will be heavily relied upon to help propel the team past the Braves in this series.

Can Atlanta Depend on its Bullpen?

While the Braves collectively played above and beyond expectations this season, their bullpen, for the most part, remained in the middle of the pack; Atlanta’s bullpen ranked 11th in the majors in ERA (4.18) during the regular season. The team went out and acquired the likes of Greene and Mark Melancon at the Major League Baseball trade deadline to help bolster their bullpen, but it still remains a big question mark heading into this divisional series.

By contrast, the Cardinals bullpen ranked fifth in the majors in ERA (3.82) in the regular season. That, combined with a more veteran and experienced lineup, could give the Cardinals an advantage in the later innings of this series.

Are the Young Braves Ready for the Big Moment?

The Braves enter the 2019 postseason as not only one of the most dangerous teams in the field but also one of the youngest teams in the field. With a host of young stars who are all 25 or younger, the Braves represent the new wave of talent leading the way in MLB, at the moment. However, the Braves are no longer just a nice story made up of a bunch of young players that are making some noise. Now they’re a favorited team with high expectations attached to it.

This postseason will define who the Braves really are. Are they still just a plucky group of young, exciting players that will fall short of winning the big one? Or are the Braves of the future here today and ready to take the next step in re-establishing the franchise as a perennial World Series contender? The answer to that question is up to the players themselves. Acuna, Ozzie Albies, and Dansby Swanson, etc. will all be tested against a more experienced Cardinals group, and they will have to deliver to truly establish themselves.

Prediction: Braves in Five

This series has all the makings to be a classic. The new wave Braves against the veteran stalwarts in the Cardinals. The Braves have the necessary tools in their starting lineup and rotation to keep the Cardinals at bay and win the series. Unlike their 2018 playoff run, the Braves will have a healthy and productive Donaldson to add to their arsenal of weapons.

The Cardinals lineup can and likely will cause problems for the Braves shaky bullpen in the later innings of some of these games. That will be particularly evident when the series shifts to Busch Stadium, which is one of the hardest stadiums to win in, especially during the playoffs.

The Braves just have too much firepower in their lineup and, barring an unforeseen meltdown from their pitching staff, they should be able to control all phases of the game and pull out this series. Game 1 will take place on Thursday afternoon in SunTrust Park at 2:02 PST.

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