This will mostly be about the Cardinals, who are positioned to win the National League Central and serve as the Braves’ NL Division Series opponent. Still, we can’t yet dismiss the Brewers, who lost 2018 MVP Christian Yelich to a shattered kneecap Sept. 10 and have gone 11-2 since. They were 2-1/2 games behind St. Louis as of daybreak Wednesday, the Cardinals having lost to Arizona 3-2 in a 19-inning game that ended at 4:34 a.m. EDT.
Milwaukee has benefited from a bunny schedule. Since Yelich was lost, they’ve played three games against an opponent above .500, and they’ll finish against the last-place Rockies. The Cardinals have two games remaining against the plus-.500 Diamondbacks and three more against the Cubs, who thanks to St. Louis cannot win the Central and are all but eliminated from the wild-card chase.
If the Braves could pick their Round 1 opponent, they surely would choose the Brewers. They’re without their best player. Over 157 games, they’ve yielded as many runs as they’ve scored. They were 68-66 on the morning of Aug. 31. They were 7-1/2 games out of first place and 5-1/2 behind the second-place Cubs on Sept. 5. They’re ninth among NL clubs in runs scored, 10th in ERA. If we go by Pythagorean wins/losses, they should be a .500 team. They’re 87-70. They’re an amazing September story.
Also amazing — the Cardinals. They were 44-45 on July 12. They were 3-1/2 games out of first place Aug. 7. They rank 10th in the league in runs, 12th in OPS and home runs. Going by WAR (wins above replacement), their best position players have been second baseman Kolten Wong, shortstop Paul DeJong and rookie Tommy Edman, who made his debut in June. The supposed big boppers — first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and left fielder Marcell Ozuna – have had pedestrian years.
It’s easy to eyeball the Redbirds and think, “The Braves are way more talented.” It’s easy because it’s true. But there’s a reason the Cardinals went to Wrigley Field last week and swept four games, and it’s not just because the Cubs are but a shadow of the 2016 World Series champs. (Though that part is likewise true.) The Cardinals can really pitch. You might have a tough time naming a St. Louis pitcher besides Adam Wainwright — Braves fans and John Schuerholz can never forget Adam Wainwright — but this staff has been the NL’s best since the All-Star game.
The Cardinals lead the league in ERA post-ASG. Their rotation is No. 1 over that span; their bullpen is No. 2. St. Louis led the NL in ERA in August; it’s second to Milwaukee in September. Since the break, only the Astros have won as many games as the Cardinals (46); the Yankees have won 45, the Braves 42.
Jack Flaherty, who’s a year older than Mike Soroka, has an ERA of 0.97 in five September starts. Wainwright, who’s a year older than Methuselah, has an ERA of 1.69 in five September starts. The Cardinals have won eight of Dakota Hudson’s past nine starts. They’ve won five of Mike Mikolas’ past seven.
Over the full season, St. Louis relievers have a FanGraphs WAR of 5.7, second-best among NL bullpens; the Braves are at 0.5, 12th-best. The Cardinals’ closer is Carlos Martinez, who has blown only three saves this season. Andrew Miller, once the best reliever in baseball, has blown five in his multi-faceted role. Giovanny Gallegos yielded four earned runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day; he has yielded four in September.
The Braves have proved they can hit good pitching. They’ve beaten Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Jacob deGrom, Aaron Nola, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Shane Bieber. They were 4-2 against the Cardinals, though the most recent meeting was in May.
The Braves’ pitching has gotten better over time, but they still hit better than they pitch. They’ll be favored in the series, and given that they won a toughened NL East with relative ease, they deserve to be. That said, best-of-fives are scary. If the Cardinals split the first two games at SunTrust Park, they can close it out without seeing Cobb County again.
The Braves have faced St. Louis four times in postseason. They were swept in 1982: Phil Niekro led Game 1 through four innings when rain interceded. They were swept in 2000, and that was with Rick Ankiel, Tony La Russa’s surprise Game 1 starter, throwing five wild pitches. They lost the 2012 infield-fly wild-card game, about which we say no more. The only time the Braves prevailed was in the 1996 NL Championship Series, when the reigning champs trailed an 88-win opponent 3-1. John Smoltz won Game 5; Greg Maddux won Game 6; Tom Glavine won Game 7. Facing elimination, the Braves outscored the Cards 32-1.
The contemporary Cardinals can’t outslug anybody. If hitters hold sway, the Braves will win. If every game is 2-1 or 3-2, St. Louis has a chance. You might think the Braves lucked out by not having to face the high-profile Cubs. You’d be wrong. The Cubs were a listing team looking for a place to collapse. From the Braves’ perspective, they fell two weeks too soon. The Cardinals are made from stouter stuff.
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