Typically, the road team is at a disadvantage in the postseason — especially when that road team had a worse record in the regular season. That was not the case in the NLCS. In fact, the road team (led by Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer) controlled the action.
Opening the series with the team’s fourth starter wasn’t the preference of most people. A segment of the fan base was even calling for Scherzer on short rest. But Sanchez more than did his job on Friday. He took a no-hitter through 7.2 innings — which was massive, considering closer Daniel Hudson opened the series on paternity leave.
Miles Mikolas actually had a solid outing for St. Louis, as well (one run on seven hits over six innings). Yan Gomes drove in the only early run. Normally, that puts you in a position to win, but not when you are opposed by a pitcher who had an outing like Sanchez.
The Nationals added a run via an RBI single by Howie Kendrick in the seventh inning, which was more than Washington needed.
With four outs remaining, Sean Doolittle replaced Sanchez and set the Cardinals down in order. Equally important, he only threw 15 pitches — more on the significance later.
Scherzer had a vintage Scherzer outing on Saturday — although it still wasn’t as strong as Sanchez’s start, which is mind-boggling. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning himself. Paul Goldschmidt broke it up, but Scherzer (who struck out 11 St. Louis batters) got through the inning, tossing 101 pitches.
Somewhat ironically, Adam Wainwright was even stronger than Mikolas had been for most of the game. The wheels didn’t come off until the eighth inning, when he surrendered consecutive singles to pinch-hitter Matt Adams and Trea Turner, followed by a two-run double from Adam Eaton.
Doolittle pitched a solid eighth inning — remember the relatively short outing he had in Game One? He did allow a run, but it was due to a miscue by Michael A. Taylor in which he misread a line drive off the bat of Jose Martinez.
Patrick Corbin forced Kolten Wong into a groundout to second base to lead off the ninth. Then Hudson (the new father of Millie Hudson) retired Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — the Cardinals’ top two hitters.
The next two pitching matchups are official.
Game Three: Jack Flaherty vs Stephen Strasburg
Game Four: Dakota Hudson vs. Patrick Corbin
Presumably, Game Five will go to Mikolas and Sanchez (the Game One starters).
You can find more info and my thoughts on the pitchers in my series preview.
I’d be surprised if Mike Shildt and the Cardinals didn’t make any lineup changes going forward. After all, they only have four hits through two games, and the only extra-base hit was the ball that should’ve been caught by Taylor. At a minimum, right-handed hitter Jose Martinez (2–2 in pinch-hitting appearances) should start against Corbin.
The Nationals will continue to rotate at catcher. Kurt Suzuki will likely align with Stephen Strasburg and Anibal Sanchez, and Gomes with Corbin. However, don’t be shocked if Gomes (3–9 with a double) starts more than one of these three games. He was behind the mound in Sanchez’s series opener, and Suzuki has scuffled his way to an 0–16 postseason thus far (with six strikeouts and three double plays). Gomes is also substantially better and throwing out base stealers.
The only other spot in the lineup that appears to be up in the air is center field. Taylor has been outstanding at the plate (6–20 with a home run on Saturday), and he provides equal speed and defense to Victor Robles, who remains sidelined with a tweaked hamstring — although it is reportedly at least close to healed. I say stick with the hot hand, and let Robles (a first-time starter on a postseason roster) fully recover. If needed, he could pinch run or spell Eaton defensively late in a game.
Either Asdrubal Cabrera or Brian Dozier will probably start at least one game at second base, giving one of Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman a day off (with the other playing first base).
Pitcher workload shouldn’t be a significant concern for the Nationals, which is fortunate for them, because they have established a clear winning formula: using strictly their starting pitchers and top two relievers.
First pitch of Game Three will be at 7:38 p.m. on Monday, Game Four will start at 8:08 p.m. on Tuesday, and a potential Game Five would begin at 4:08 p.m. on Wednesday. If the Nationals win two out of these three games — which is generally the expectation during a home stand — they will advance to the World Series. If the Cardinals spoil the party, the teams will head back to St. Louis.