NL Wild Card game preview

The Cardinals emphatic victory over arch-rivals Chicago Cubs on Sunday night, clinched the NL Central division title to set up a five-game NLDS against the Atlanta Braves, starting on Thursday 3 October.

The result means the win-or-go-home NL Wild Card game on Tuesday evening is between the Milwaukee Brewers and Washington Nationals in DC.

Both teams are in sensational form going into this one-off game, but unfortunately for us in the UK, it is a 1:00am start time. I am not invested enough to stay up, so social media will be avoided on Wednesday until I have watched the rerun.

Nationals’ manager Dave Martinez is spoilt for starting pitching options. Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin would spearhead most rotations, but not surprisingly, Martinez has decided to give the ball to the indomitable Max Scherzer.

A fourth Cy Young award looked on the cards for Scherzer after his first 22 starts in which he tossed 142 innings with 200 strikeouts and a 2.46 ERA. But Mad Max succumbed to a back injury in mid-July, and although he is back to striking out opponents at an elite rate, his last five starts have seen him produce a combined 5.14 ERA which will give the Brewers confidence.

Scherzer displayed his usual brilliance in his only start against the Brewers this season, striking out 10 and allowing just one earned run. Not for the first (or last time), the Nationals bullpen imploded and cost Scherzer the win.

You can choose your stat to sum up the 2019 Nationals’ bullpen.

  • 29 blown saves (second-worst)
  • 33 bullpen losses (third-worst)
  • 5.68 ERA (Only the Orioles are worse for goodness sake!)
  • -0.1 fWAR since the All-Star break (28th out of 30 teams)

As if coping with the late-inning horror shows don’t make it impressive enough that the Nationals still managed to reach the Wild Card game, you have to remember that they did it from a horrendous start of losing 31 of their first 50 games.

The Brewers bullpen is far more reliable than their Wild Card opponents, but they are not blessed with the strength or depth of starters. Zach Davies and Chase Anderson combined for 58 starts this season. Do I need to say more?

Brandon Woodruff will get the ball on Tuesday night, but the right-hander has only made three starts since returning from an oblique strain, so don’t expect a long outing. As is their trademark, Milwaukee will utilise an array of pitchers in their attempt to stifle the Nationals bats.

Woodruff allowed just one earned run in his only start against the Nationals this season during a nine-strikeout outing in May. That day the Nationals were without half of their impressive first four lineup names of Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. The quartet has combined for 17.3 WAR this year.

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The Brewers will have a 7.8 WAR player watching from the stands after Christian Yelich broke his kneecap in early September. The reigning NL MVP still leads the league with 1.100 OPS, so his absence from the Brewers lineup cannot be understated.

When Yelich went down on September 10, the Brewers were 1½ games behind the Cubs and five games back on the Cardinals. The fact that the race for the NL Central title went down to the wire demonstrates how well Milwaukee coped without their MVP, winning 15 of their final 20 games.

Despite this, it is the Nationals, on their eight-game winning streak, who enter Tuesday’s game as the hottest team in baseball

Five players to watch

Some of the free-agent signings from the last offseason have worked out better than others. In Yasmani Grandal, the Brewers hit the jackpot. He has solidified himself as one of the best offensive catchers in the business, setting career-highs in runs, home runs and RBI. With .926 OPS, he is a top-30 hitter in September, regardless of position.

The Nationals also brought in a new face behind the plate during the offseason, but Brazilian Yan Gomes and his 79 OPS+ pales in comparison.

Another player enjoying an excellent September is the Nationals leadoff man, Trea Turner. The former first-round pick has endured yet another injury-impacted season, but when on the field, he brings elite shortstop defence, reliable on-base abilities and dynamic base-running skills to the top of the Nationals’ lineup.

In days gone by, a rookie scoring 85 runs with 17 homers and 27 stolen bases would have been headline news, but today it hardly warrants a mention. Nationals’ centre fielder Victor Robles strikes out too much, leads the league in ‘caught-stealing’ and needs to improve his ability at getting on-base, but the guy will still only be 22 years old when next season starts. His potential is incredible.

Did you know that Darwinzon Hernandez of the Red Sox is the only pitcher with a better strikeout rate than Josh Hader’s 16.41 K/9? The Brewers reliever has secured 37 saves with 2.60 ERA and 0.81 WHIP, whereas Hernandez hasn’t.

In a season of capitulating bullpens, Hader has been a giant. His 138 strikeouts leads all relievers, and it is only five shy of leading all Brewers pitchers. Craig Counsell has no qualms about employing Hader in the highest leverage point, no matter what inning. The left-hander has six holds on the season, whereas the other top-saves guys of Kirby Yates, Brad Hand, Aroldis Chapman, Roberto Osuna and Will Smith have combined for zero.

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Part of me wants Anthony Rendon to re-sign with the Nationals immediately after the World Series to prevent a recurrence of the high-profile free agent circus that we endured last offseason with Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Rendon, 29 years old, is clearly the best available free agent hitter.

Over the last six years, the top hitters in the game are Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Josh Donaldson, Jose Altuve, Christian Yelich and Anthony Rendon. Rendon is the only one never to have won the MVP, in fact, his best finish was fifth back in 2014. He is quiet, understated and spurns the media spotlight. He leads the league with 126 RBI, and his 2019 slash line of .319/.412/.598 will make his plate appearances ‘must-watch’ TV during the Wild Card game.

The winner on Tuesday night will have to travel 2,500 miles across the country to the west coast to face the Dodgers in Los Angeles on Thursday. You can imagine Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts saying he doesn’t mind which way the Wild Card game goes, but extra-innings would be nice.

Make sure you are following @BatFlips_Nerds on Twitter to stay up-to-date with all of the postseason news and fantastic podcasts.

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