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Cards series a chance for the Washington Nationals to make a statement

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On Tuesday, the Washington Nationals will begin a series with the National League's most consistently successful franchise since the turn of the millennium. While this may not actually be a "Playoff Preview" (it's only April, after all), it could certainly provide the Nats with an early gauge of what to expect in 2015.

Jayson Werth's homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS may have been the greatest moment in Nats history, even if they did lose the next day. It's time to slay some demons and devil magic.
Jayson Werth's homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS may have been the greatest moment in Nats history, even if they did lose the next day. It's time to slay some demons and devil magic.
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Eleven World Series titles.  Nineteen pennants.  Twenty-seven playoff appearances.  The people of St. Louis will quote these numbers like scripture.  Many of them act like those numbers have an impact on how well their current 25 man roster will perform.  I won't say that all Cardinals fans think the achievements of Bob Gibson, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, and Ozzie Smith have anything to do with their current squad, but hey.... Every fanbase has those people that think the success of yesteryear determines the fate of the current season.

We get it... The Cardinals are the Yankees of the National League.  Don't say this if you ever visit my hometown of St. Louis.  You'll get an earful about how much money the Yankees spend and about how the Cardinals do things "the right way"... blah blah blah.  Let's be honest, though... If the Yankees spent $250 million a season on their roster and were regularly a second division club, would so many people hate them?  Wouldn't we just laugh at them instead?  While many baseball fans have complained about the Yankees payroll over the years, money isn't necessarily what makes people angry.  Success is what breeds contempt.

Anyway, franchise history is all a lot of irrelevant nonsense.  The Nationals aren't going to face the 1982 Cardinals.... or the 1967 Cardinals.. or the teams that won three World Series in the 1940's.  Ozzie Smith isn't going to be swallowing up everything hit his way at SS.  Bob Gibson isn't going to be mowing down the hitters in this series.  The late, great Stan Musial isn't going to be a threat to win the triple crown.  That's all in the past.

The 2015 Washington Nationals will host the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals for three games starting on Tuesday.  Let's focus on what we do know about the Nationals upcoming opponents and their more recent performance....

  • They've been the most consistently dominant team in the National League since the turn of the millennium.  Over the past fifteen seasons, the Cardinals have won two World Series titles, four NL pennants, eight division titles, and reached the playoffs eleven times.  Are those numbers also in the past?  Sure... but some of the players from those recent squads are still there.  Their current front office has done a fine job putting together a consistent winner.
  • They're off to a strong 8-3 start this season and were considered the preseason favorites to repeat as the NL Central champs.  The Nats next opponents are a team that many expect will be playing October baseball again this season.
  • There's a bit of recent history between the Nats and the Cardinals... mainly a postseason series which many of us would like to forget.  You know... the one where the Nats squandered a six run lead in the decisive game and two Cardinals utility infielders (Babe Descalso and the man known simply as PFK) inexplicably summoned the ghosts of Rogers Hornsby and Ozzie Smith for a week.

Like it or not, the Cardinals aren't only the historic standard bearers in the National League... They're also the current ones.  The San Francisco Giants have won three of the past five World Series, but that followed a six year absence from the playoffs (they also missed the playoffs in 2011 and 2013).  The Dodgers have made the playoffs six times in the past eleven years, but they've won just three playoff series in that time.  The Phillies, Marlins, and Diamondbacks have all won World Series titles since 2000, but they haven't had nearly the consistency that St. Louis has.

Our beloved Nats are still relatively new to winning.  From 2005-2011, the Nats never finished above .500.  In 2012, the Nats finished with the best record in baseball and entered the playoffs on a roll, only to get punched in the mouth and give away a series to the worst team (by record) to make the playoffs that season.  They've followed that up with two more winning seasons, including their second NL East title in three years in 2014.  The Nats entered the 2015 season as one of the favorites to win the World Series.  Still, this franchise has never won a playoff series going back to their days in Montreal, much less recently...

  • There was Blue Monday in 1981
  • There was PFK and Babe Descalso in 2012
  • There was the complete disappearance of six of the club's eight hitters against the Giants last season

All of this is said to hammer home the point that if the Nats make a deep run in October this season, they're probably going to have to go through the Cardinals at some point.  This series in April isn't really going to have much bearing on a potential series six months from now, but it does present the Nats with an opportunity to make a statement that they can live up to the hype this season.

Some real analysis

I'm going to leave most of the analysis to dc Roach with his series preview and B. Sheridan with his series infographic (you should check these links out!), but I'll dive into things a bit.

Rotation

The Cardinals' rotation is a bit top-heavy, and the Nats will have the advantage of missing ace Adam Wainwright.  Their number two starter, Lance Lynn, helped provide us with one of the best moments in Nats history....

Still, that moment won't define Lynn's career.  He's a prototypical bulldog who will eat up 200 innings with an ERA below 3.50.  2014 was his best season so far, as he finished with a 2.74 ERA and 1.26 WHIP.  John Lackey has revived his career the past two seasons following Tommy John surgery in 2011.  We'll also see Michael Wacha, who has a chance to be special, but has to prove he can stay healthy after last season.  We'll miss the other young potential stud, Carlos Martinez.

Bullpen

St. Louis always seems to manage to piece together a strong bullpen.  Trevor Rosenthal has filthy stuff and a big fastball, but his control problems from last year don't seem to have gone away so far in 2015.  They acquired "Balkin'" Jordan Walden in the Jason Heyward trade with the Braves, so we're pretty familiar with their primary setup man.  Apart from that, nothing blows me away about their bullpen.  Seth Maness gets a lot of groundballs, but doesn't overpower hitters.  Kevin Siegrist looked like he was on his way to becoming a shutdown reliever as a rookie in 2013, but the wheels really fell off last season.  Siegrist and Randy Choate will be the go-to guys for the Cardinals when Bryce Harper steps to the plate.

Lineup

Their lineup really isn't that imposing, but it's deep enough so that there aren't really any easy outs.  Matt Holliday has been a star for a long time, but the 35-year-old showed some signs that he might be fading last year (lowest batting average of his career by 18 points... lowest slugging by 47 points)....  Yadier Molina didn't exactly turn back into the no-bat/outstanding glove catcher he was earlier in his career last season, but he did struggle with injuries and had his worst offensive season (by far) since 2010.  Yes.  He still has that god-awful neck tattoo...  Matt Carpenter is a fun change of pace in the leadoff spot... a big walker without much speed who focuses more on plugging the gap than hitting the ball over the fence.... Jason Heyward has yet to turn into the force at the plate that many expected him to become, but he's still a dangerous hitter with a .349 lifetime OBP who can go yard at any moment.  He's also strong on the basepaths and terrific defensively... Matt Adams is a flawed player with monster power.... Kolten Wong has decent pop and great speed, but has on-base issues... Jon Jay is... well... he's a nice enough average/OBP guy with a decent glove in center... Jhonny Peralta seems to have a great year every three years or so before he returns to being a slightly above average performer at shorstop.  He was terrific in 2014, setting his career high with 5.3 fWAR.

It's hard to go over their lineup without mentioning everyone, since everyone contributes a little.  There are no real holes in the Cardinals lineup.  There are no players who really terrify you either.  They're just.... deep.

Time to get on the soapbox for a bit

OK... OK... If you were just trying to get some information about the upcoming series, you can probably stop here.  If you're looking for a reason to try and stoke the fires of a non-divisional rivalry, feel free to keep reading.  The Cardinals franchise and fanbase (OK... It's probably more the fanbase) inspires a lot of rage in me.  I'll concede that a significant part of the reason for this is because I've lived in St. Louis for the past 25 years.  Let's talk about the thing that bothers me the most.

The self-proclaimed "Best Fans in Baseball" nonsense

Cardinals fans are the best fans in baseball.  If you don't believe they are, they'll certainly tell you.  Some of the things I'm going to complain about only apply to about five to ten percent of their fanbase, but I can say with 100% accuracy that even some of the people I've met that seem to be their more knowledgeable fans occasionally spout this silly moniker.  It sounds so asinine that I almost threw up in my mouth just typing the first sentence of this paragraph.

All teams have good and loyal members of their fanbase.  More fans tend to come out of the woodwork when the team is winning, and (as outlined above) we don't have a lot of recent data that shows us what has happened to their attendance in seasons when they weren't a winning ballclub.  Since 2000, the Cardinals have had just one losing season (2007), and that was a year after they'd won the World Series... their attendance was actually higher than it was in 2006.  Prior to that, we have to go back to 1999 to find a losing season, or Mark McGwire's last good season.  Their fans did show up just to watch McGwire hit*.

*I'll verify that with a story from 1998, in which I went to one of the final three games of the season (they were playing the Expos).  McGwire batted in the eighth inning of a one run game............ He struck out.  The stadium went from 100% capacity to about 20% before the top of the ninth started.  Yep... Best fans in baseball

If we go back to 1995 (the year after the strike), when St. Louis finished 62-81 we'll see that the Cardinals had pretty mediocre attendance.  They drew 1.75 million fans, or about 450,000 more than my beloved Expos.  It was twelfth in the league that season, which isn't particularly impressive, but was above average.  A down year in 1990 saw their attendance drop by about 500,000 fans from the seasons sandwiched around it.  The 1970's saw them draw about 1.2 million fans when they had down years and 1.7 million fans when they had good years.

What's my point?  It's a whole lot easier to support a winner.  Winning teams see spikes in attendance.  The Nats are the perfect example of this, drawing an average of 1.85 million fans to the park from 2006-2011 after the buzz of baseball returning to the nation's capital wore off.  Since 2012, the Nats have averaged 2.5 million fans per season.  Cardinal fans have had the benefit of cheering for a winning team for all but one of the past fifteen years, so it shouldn't be all that surprising that they turn out in droves.

Regarding the other nonsense that we'll see this brilliant twitter account mockingly retweet from time to time.....

Editor's note: Heads up.  There's some offensive and NSFW stuff there.

  • The Cardinals fans cheer for their former players when they return to Busch Stadium.  No... I've never seen any other team do that (can I just italicize sarcasm?)
  • They'll give an injured player a hand when he's coming off the field.... Yeah... that's rare
  • Some of their fans seem to have an awful lot of trouble spelling the name of their own stadium
  • If the Cardinals beat your team, they'll smile at you and condescendingly tell you how hard your team tried. It's an obnoxious "consolation."

The Devil Magic

I've seen my fair share of lucky hits in my lifetime, but there's a reason that we call every blooper and bleeder with eyes a Cardinals Hit in the gamethreads here at Federal Baseball.  It feels like every time that the Nats play St. Louis, the Cardinals are the beneficiaries of some ridiculous BABIP luck.  Even that dreaded Game 5 a few years ago had Descalso hit a BABIP single that bounced off of Ian Desmond's glove and a perfectly placed bloop down the right field line by PFK to score the go-ahead runs.

As for Descalso and PFK, they quickly returned to being the career backups that they are after that 2012 NLDS.  The Cardinals have had their fair share of guys come out of nowhere over the years.  These have predominantly been pitchers, and (at least prior to the past few years) I will concede that former pitching coach Dave Duncan probably had quite a bit to do with it.  Kyle Lohse has actually sustained his success for a few years in Milwaukee, but he was pretty much a bust in Minnesota before heading to St. Louis.  Woody Williams was pretty much a league average starter until he got traded to St. Louis at the age of 35 and suddenly had a 2.42 ERA over the next year and a half.  It's hard to forget how they got a career year out of journeyman Kent Bottenfield in 1999 and flipped him (with Adam Kennedy) for Jim Edmonds.  Even Chris Carpenter went from being a guy with a 4.83 career ERA in 870 career innings to a perennial Cy Young contender for the rest of his career after the Cardinals picked him up on the cheap in 2003.

Their track record with scrap heap hitters hasn't been as fortunate.  Instead they just develop with a patient approach and bring up older guys who are generally not considered great prospects, such as Allen Craig (well... he's kind of fallen apart), Matt Carpenter, and David Freese.  They've had some success picking up bats off the scrap heap, I suppose.  Carlos Beltran didn't have a whole lot of suitors that believed in him after 2011.  Lance Berkman looked like he was nearing the end in 2009 and 2010, only to sign with St. Louis, finish seventh in the MVP balloting, and win a World Series in 2011.

From a Nats fans perspective, none of this compares to Daniel Descalso (.241/.311/.338, 10 HR, 111 RBI in 1,392 career PA) going off for a .316/.333/.684 triple slash line with 2 HR and 6 RBI in that 2012 NLDS.  None of it compares to a 24-year-old non-prospect like Pete Kozma who has a .231/.300/.339 career line in 1,385 career PA at AAA batting .250/.455/.500 with a HR and 5 RBI (including the series-winning RBI) in that same short series. When two career backups have career weeks, it makes the loss a bitter pill to swallow.

OK... This is already running too long

Irritatingly enough, the Cardinals are once again a very good baseball team.  They're deep.  They're talented.  They're a threat that the Nats are probably going to have to get past later this year in order to earn some October glory.  If you've made it this far, let's finish with some NSFW inspiration.  I can't stand the Cardinals, but I respect what they've done, so.......

Those are brave men knocking at our door...

Go get 'em Nats!