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NL Division Series preview: Nationals vs. Cardinals

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Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

STORYLINES

1 Carpenter's return » A year ago St. Louis starter Chris Carpenter was among the most dominant pitchers in the postseason, besting Roy Halladay 1-0 in Game 5 of the National League Division Series at Philadelphia and eventually starting and winning Game 7 of the World Series. But after July surgery to free compressed nerves that were causing shoulder weakness, it looked as if Carpenter would miss the entire 2012 season. Instead, he returned far faster than anticipated and is set to start Game 3 in Washington. Considering Carpenter actually looked solid in his three return starts in late September, that is a scary proposition for the Nationals.

2 Will depth matter? » It seems clear that Washington's biggest advantages in this series are its bench and its bullpen. The Cardinals just don't have the firepower off the bench to worry Nats manager Davey Johnson, and their bullpen ranked 20th in the majors in ERA (3.90). But will any of that matter if the Nats can't get the game into the late innings either tied or with a lead? In Games 2, 3 and 4, St. Louis will see Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler. The Cardinals knocked those three out of September starts in 3 2/3 innings, 1 1/3 innings and 2 1/3 innings, respectively.

3 Strasburg's absence » Yes, Stephen Strasburg's still a storyline. Even if you agree with general manager Mike Rizzo's decision to shut down Strasburg at the end of the season, the fact remains that he will be watching from the dugout. At a time of year when missing bats is an even bigger advantage given the strength of lineups pitchers see in October, Washington will miss Strasburg's league-best 11.13 strikeouts per nine innings. That also means a guaranteed start for lefty Ross Detwiler, who has had a fine season but was pummeled by St. Louis last weekend. It swings the starting pitching advantage to the Cardinals.

TALE OF THE TAPE

Starting pitching

Washington had the best starting rotation in the National League this season (3.40 ERA). But it will be without a key piece to that puzzle after shutting ace Stephen Strasburg down. St. Louis, meanwhile, wasn't far behind at 3.62 and has better depth with seven different starters posting sub-4.00 ERAs.

Advantage » Cardinals

Bullpen

The Nats don't have an obvious weak spot in their bullpen and may carry eight relievers. Drew Storen has regained the closer's role. They need setup man Tyler Clippard to find his old form. St. Louis has a mediocre 3.90 bullpen ERA but a large collection of power arms.

Advantage » Nats

Lineup

Six members of the St. Louis starting lineup had an OPS of .828 or better. And it is a right-handed heavy lineup, which should help against Nats Game 1 starter Gio Gonzalez, a lefty. But the Nats' offense is deep, too, more balanced and outscored the Cardinals by 44 runs after the All-Star break.

Advantage » Nats

Bench

Washington's pinch hitters, led by lefty Chad Tracy, were first in the majors with a .786 OPS. Roger Bernadina provides another lefty bat. Utility man Steve Lombardozzi is a switch hitter. Righty slugger Tyler Moore hit 10 homers. Matt Carpenter is St. Louis' only legitimate bat off the bench, and its pinch hitters had an ugly .539 OPS.

Advantage » Nats

SERIES RECAP

Washington 4, St. Louis 3

Most recent series » The two teams met just last weekend in St. Louis, with the Nats hoping to wrap up the National League East title and the Cardinals trying to secure a playoff spot. It didn't work out so well for Washington, which dropped two of three games and was outscored 26-12.

Memorable moments » The two teams traded punches Sept. 1 in Washington when the Nats grabbed a 6-2 lead in the second inning, fell behind 8-6, retook the lead 9-8 and eventually lost 10-9. The Nats again blew a four-run lead in St. Louis on Sept. 29, but Kurt Suzuki's two-run homer in the 10th saved them in a 6-4 win.

Examiner predicts

The Cardinals gave Washington a rough go in a three-game series last week in St. Louis. They battered Jordan Zimmermann in his worst career start Sept. 1 and have added veteran Chris Carpenter to the rotation at the perfect time. They also have a positive run differential of 117. Only the Nats (137) were better in the National League. But Carpenter still isn't at full strength, and there's a reason the Cardinals' record doesn't match their production at the plate -- they struggle in close games. That's exactly the environment Washington has thrived in all season with a versatile, deep bullpen. It is the reason they will win this series.

Nats in five games

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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