Cardinals staggered to end season but Braves have questions, too

The Cardinals led the NL Central by 3-1/2 games with five games to play. Then they lost four in a row, the Brewers went on a run and the Cardinals had to beat the Cubs on the final day to win the division. St. Louis rode pitching all year, but it faltered during the final week wobble.

The Cardinals stumbled into the NLDS against the Braves. And yet two statistical projections give them a very good shot to win it. puts their chances at 49 percent and FanGraphs has it at 42.7 percent.

Those numbers might have seemed optimistic two weeks prior. They are harder to argue now.

As shaky as St. Louis was at the finish, the Braves have their own issues. The Braves are superior to the Cardinals when at their best but it’s not clear that’s what they’ll be. Two of their best hitters were ailing to end the season, which might be a problem because hitting is the best reason to like the Braves over the Cardinals.

Ailments hobbled Braves sluggers Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna to finish the season. It may turn out that one or both hitters will be themselves for the NLDS. It’s not good that the Braves are hoping for that instead of expecting it.

The Braves hit much better than the Cardinals over the full season. They were about even after the All-Star break. The Braves might still have the superior offense even with Acuna and Freeman ailing. The margin would be smaller, though, and that’s where it could get dicey for the Braves.

They don’t want a series with low-scoring games. That would put a premium on pitching, which is where the Cardinals have an edge. Also, luck plays a role in close games and in a best-of-five series. Better for the Braves if their big boppers create scoring margins that the weak-hitting Cardinals can’t overcome.

Freeman is the best Braves hitter, but he's dealt with bone spurs in his right elbow for weeks. He got four days of rest and treatment before returning to the lineup for the final series at the Mets. Now Freeman gets more rest, and he says the elbow won't be a problem, but it looked as if it bothered him in New York.

This season Freeman led Braves regulars in on-base percentage, slugging and RBIs. He’ll rake if he’s feeling right. But after the sore elbow forced him to leave a game at Washington, Freeman went 4-for-30 over his next 11 games with one extra-base hit. His simple swing and sound approach mean he should quickly get back in his groove if the elbow is OK.

Acuna has less experience to rely on for his comeback. He sat out the final 10 games because of a groin injury. The optimistic view it is that the time off will allow him to reset. Acuna's strikeout rate was fourth-highest among NL regulars over the season's second half. He produced during that period but not up to his standard.

The Braves have other good hitters, of course. Lineup regulars Ozzie Albies and Josh Donaldson finished good years with a strong September. Matt Joyce, an injury replacement in the outfield, has produced all year. There was a stretch when every sub the Braves used seemed to get a big hit.

It’s going to be harder against the Cardinals. The St. Louis staff had the NL’s third-best Wins Above Replacement after the all-star break. The Braves ranked eighth. The Cardinals’ top three starters combined for a 6.5 WAR since the break. The top three for the Braves had a 4.1 WAR.

Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty’s second-half WAR was second in the NL to New York’s Jacob deGrom. His 0.91 ERA in that span was third-lowest in MLB history. St. Louis called on Flaherty to save them in the final game, so he won’t be available for Game 1. The other options aren’t as formidable, but still capable: Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson.

The St. Louis bullpen was good through August before fading in the final month. It didn’t hold up under stress in the final week. That could be good for the Braves, who wear out relief pitchers. Cardinals relievers gave up a lot of walks at season’s end. The Braves ranked second in NL walk percentage this season.

There are good reasons why the Braves are favored to win the NLDS. They’ve hit good pitchers. They are always a threat to beat up the opposing bullpen. If the Braves hit the way they did for much of the season, they have enough pitching to beat the Cardinals.

It’s just not clear that’s what they will do. Freeman and Acuna go into the NLCS with questions about their health and sharpness. If those two aren’t in peak form, the Braves still can beat the Cardinals. They’ll just have much less leeway.