10/06/12 9:35 AM ET
NLDS position-by-position: Nationals-Cardinals
By AJ Cassavell / MLB.com
St. Louis' Yadier Molina hit .315 this season with 22 homers and 76 RBIs, an elite season for any catcher -- and those are just his offensive numbers. Molina has won each of the past four Gold Gloves in the NL, and he figures to be the favorite for a fifth. Molina should receive plenty of NL MVP Award votes, too. For the Nationals, Kurt Suzuki has been solid behind the plate and has adjusted well to a new pitching staff, but it's hard to argue against the backstop for the defending champs here.
The two second basemen in the series don't have much in common. Washington's Danny Espinosa is known for his power at the plate. He hit 17 homers this season, ranking fifth among NL second basemen, but his 189 strikeouts were the most in the league. Meanwhile, St. Louis' Daniel Descalso is best known for his versatility, though he settled into an important role for the Cards at second base this year. Descalso rarely hits for power, but he can be a very pesky slap hitter at the bottom of St. Louis' lineup.
Ian Desmond has emerged into one of the NL's best shortstops, and he was rewarded this season with his first All-Star berth. The 27-year-old Desmond has been an important piece in the Nats' lineup on both sides of the ball. He mashed 25 homers this season, easily a career high, and posted a .292 average. For St. Louis, the impact of Rafael Furcal's elbow injury was lessened by the solid play of Pete Kozma to end the season. Kozma hit .333 with a .952 OPS in 26 games. But with just 72 at-bats under his belt this year, Kozma remains a question mark in the playoffs.
Everyone knows the story of David Freese and the 2011 World Series. He saved the Cards not once, but twice, in Game 6. Freese put up absurd numbers all series and at times seemed like he was carrying the club to its 11th title. But Freese proved this season he's much more than a one-hit wonder, with 20 homers and a slash line of .293/.372/.467. Now its Ryan Zimmerman's turn to get a crack at the postseason. The life-long National -- Zimmerman has been with Washington since 2005, when the franchise moved from Montreal -- raised his average 39 points in the second half of the season and finished with 25 homers and 95 RBIs.
Nationals left fielder Michael Morse had a fine season in 2012. Despite missing the first two months, he hit 18 homers and knocked in 62 runs while hitting .291. He's been especially hot recently, hitting .333 with four homers in his past 10 games. But Matt Holliday was his normal self this season, and that means St. Louis takes this category. Holliday just keeps producing for the Cards, as he posted an .877 OPS this season while hitting .295 with 27 homers and 102 RBIs. It's the fourth postseason for Holliday and his third with the Cardinals.
They say the key to winning in baseball is strong play up the middle of the field, and both the Cardinals and Nationals have that in Jon Jay and Bryce Harper, respectively, in center. Jay has had another solid season, doing what he does best -- setting the table. Though his slugging percentage was only .400, Jay hit .305 with an on-base mark of .373. Meanwhile, Harper has taken the league by storm at just 19 years old. One of the favorites for the NL Rookie of the Year Award, Harper's play resembles that of a grizzled vet. He hit 22 homers while slugging .477 and playing solid defense.
This NLDS features a pair of right fielders who have been in the Majors for more than a decade in Jayson Werth and Carlos Beltran. Werth re-invented himself this season as an on-base guy at the top of the Nats' order. Werth hit .300 with a .387 OBP in 81 games. Plus, he has plenty of postseason experience, something that's lacking on the Washington roster. Beltran has that experience, too, but he's still in search of that elusive World Series championship. Beltran had another very solid season, blasting 32 homers while slugging .495. He earned his seventh All-Star appearance in July.
No, the Nats do not have Stephen Strasburg on their postseason roster. Yes, they still have one of the best rotations in all of baseball. Headlined by NL Cy Young Award candidate Gio Gonzalez, the Washington rotation is deep, too, with the likes of Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler. St. Louis' rotation is nothing to scoff at either, as both Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright have come up huge in past postseasons. But the Cards were hurt Friday when they used top starter Kyle Lohse against Atlanta, meaning he'll only be able to pitch once in a five-game set.
The Cardinals' bullpen has seemingly found a groove with the addition of Edward Mujica, who has been handling seventh-inning duties for much of his time in St. Louis. The Cards have a pair of lefties who can get outs in Sam Freeman and Marc Rzepczynski, and in the eighth, Mitchell Boggs has been as solid as they come. But the Nationals' relievers have posted some of the best numbers in the league. Their 3.23 ERA trailed just Cincinnati and Atlanta for best bullpen ERA in the NL this year. Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen, Ryan Mattheus, Sean Burnett and Mike Gonzalez have come up huge, and manager Davey Johnson seems to have a very good read on how to best use his bullpen.
There haven't been many closers more reliable than the Cardinals' Jason Motte. He had every one of the club's 42 total saves, tying for the lead the league. Including Friday's Wild Card playoff game, Motte hasn't surrendered a run in his past 9 2/3 innings. The Nats, meanwhile, have not one, but two options at closer. A rejuvenated Storen has looked very sharp over the past month, and he seems to have put his elbow injury behind him. While Storen was on the DL, Clippard filled in very well, but in the second half of the season, he struggled, posting a 5.60 ERA in 35 1/3 innings. Storen will likely get the ball with a lead in the ninth.