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Cardinals-Phillies National League Wild Card Preview

October 7, 2011 was the last time the Phillies played Postseason baseball. On Monday night, they ended their 11-year playoff drought by defeating the Astros 3-0 and clinching a wild card spot. This Friday, October 7, exactly 11 years after their last playoff game, they will start their Wild Card Series in St. Louis against the Cardinals; the team they last faced off against in the playoffs. For the Cardinals, the path was a lot easier, having locked up the National League Central and the three seed after a road win in Milwaukee in late September. 

The Starting Pitching:

How this series shakes out will rely heavily on how the Phillies’ starting pitchers perform. Right now, it looks like Zack Wheeler will get the ball on Friday, Aaron Nola will pitch on Saturday, and in the if necessary game on Sunday, it will most likely be Ranger Suarez on the bump.

For the Cardinals, we still don’t know what the exact rotation will look like. Game 1 and Game 2 have been announced, with deadline deal (and deadline dealer) Jose Quintana on the mound for Game 1, and a resurgent All-Star in Miles Mikolas pitching Game 2. In a press conference announcing this Thursday afternoon, Manager Oli Marmol stated Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, and Jordan Montgomery will all be available out of the bullpen starting Game 1. 

The Offense:

Where to start? With the Cardinals, there are three key levels of players to keep your eyes on. Let’s call it the Past, Present, and Future.

The Past: Albert Pujols is bringing the thunder. His storied chase for 700 career HRs ended in glamorous fashion in Los Angeles, and he tacked on a few more at the end of the year for good measure. For as much of a lefty killer as he’s been in 2022, he’s still been an above-average hitter against RHP, which is why he’s the DH no matter who starts. Don’t be fooled. The Machine belted a .323/.388/.715 triple slash in the second half of the season, and he turned back the clock in a big way for the Cardinals when it mattered most.

The Present: You want an MVP in his prime though? Take your pick. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado have been exactly what this team expected them to do since acquiring them back in 2019 and 2021, respectively. Arenado spent the off-season working on his hip mobility and made a renewed effort to punish fastballs, and as a result, has seen a return to form in a big way. For Goldschmidt, it’s been business as usual. Get on base, and hit the ball hard. He has a profile that both statheads and your grandparents like, and he’s one of the most exciting bats in October. 

The Future: This is the part non-Cardinal fans hate. “Brendan Donovan.” “Lars Nootbaar.” Where does St. Louis get these guys? The lab is open for business in the 314 once again this season, as the shocking last-minute move of Harrison Bader to the Yankees opened the door for Lars Nootbaar to play full-time in the outfield. All he’s done with that opportunity is accumulate 2.6 fWAR with a 125 wRc+ and 4 DRS. As for Donovan? The swiss army knife flashed the leather all over the field, starting at 7 different spots in the lineup and hitting for a 129 wRC+ with 9 DRS. 

J.T. Realmuto has been the best hitter for the Phillies of late. Since the All-Star break, he is slashing .306/.366/.583. He has also been good at throwing out runners from behind the plate. His average pop time is 1.82 seconds, which is the best in all of baseball, and has thrown out 30 would-be base stealers, also the best in baseball.

Hoskins, Schwarber, and Castellanos have all had their moments this season. Hoskins has always been a streaky hitter and has 30 home runs and 33 doubles on the year. He can work counts and draw walks, as he has a 10.8% walk rate in 2022. Schwarber hasn’t hit for average this season, but his power numbers are good. He leads the N.L. with 46 home runs and had an insane month of June where he hit .272/.385/.680 with 12 home runs. 

Castellanos has not been what the Phillies signed up for, but he had a strong month of August where he hit .300/.333/.500 before suffering an oblique injury. He has been okay since returning to the lineup a little over a week ago, and he always has the potential to take a pitcher deep. This offense has the potential to break out and score, but it will be a tough task this weekend in St. Louis.

The Bullpen:

The Cardinals bullpen has been a whirlwind. The biggest knock on the John Mozeliak Cardinals teams of the past was a lack of legitimate depth, attempted to be curbed by patchwork middle relievers in the twilight of their career. The list of names and examples is far too long for this, but you get the idea. 

There are three names to watch. First is Jordan Hicks. With electrifying stuff and amazing talent, it’s been a long and winding road for him with ventures as a starter and a reliever. Expect to see him bridge the gap between some of the more soft-tossing starters the Cardinals have to offer, before getting to one of the two gentlemen below.

Giovanny Gallegos has been exactly as advertised for the Cardinals this season. The recently extended high-leverage arm had another season where his FIP was better than his actual ERA, and he managed to increase his K rate from the year prior as well. 

Finally, one of the biggest breakout candidates of the entire MLB season. Ryan Helsley was nothing short of dominant from start to finish for the Cardinals, splitting the closing duties with Gallegos and serving as an exterminator for any potential late-inning comebacks from opponents. Any of these three guys are fun to watch come into a game, but don’t miss his entrance in Busch Stadium if we get the chance to see it in this Wild Card Series.

For the Phillies, when it comes to their bullpen, it has been better this year than previous seasons. Jose Alvarado has been one of the most effective relievers since returning to the big leagues after his demotion to Triple-A Lehigh Valley earlier this year. In 38 innings since rejoining the big league club, Alvarado has struck out 64 batters with a 1.66 ERA.

Seranthony Dominguez and David Robertson will be important in this series. They are the two best right-handers in the Phillies’ bullpen. Dominguez has a 3.00 ERA in 51 innings this season but has struggled lately with an 11.57 ERA since the start of September. Robertson was acquired from the Cubs at the trade deadline and has a 2.70 ERA with the Phillies.

Zach Eflin will also come out of the bullpen for the Phillies and could be an important multiple-innings reliever. He is normally a starter, but since coming back from a knee injury on September 12, the team has used him as a reliever. He has 7.2 innings out of the bullpen and has allowed 2 runs. Bailey Falter is expected to be available out of the bullpen as well.

Game One:

Wheeler has pitched well this season and has been on a pitch limit since coming off the injured list on September 21. Since coming back, he has looked good in his 15 innings of work. Wheeler has given up just 1 run in those 15 innings, while striking out 15 batters, walking 1, and giving up 9 hits. 

In his 26 starts this season, Wheeler has tossed 153 innings, with a 2.82 ERA and 163 strikeouts. Outside of the fact that it’s the first playoff game for the Phillies in more than a decade, Friday’s game is a big deal for Wheeler as a player. He has never pitched in the postseason, and he will be getting the ball in game one of a playoff series.

For the Cardinals, Quintana has been in one of, if not the best forms of his career. In twelve starts with the Birds on the Bat, he’s amassed a sparkling 2.01 ERA in 62.2 innings. With a 2.60 FIP, there’s plenty to like about his tenure in St. Louis, with the key being a drastic improvement in HR/FB rate that carried over from his start to the season in Pittsburgh. 

There was a lot of discussion at the trade deadline for John Mozeliak and the Cardinals to really make sure they got the right guys to bolster starting rotation depth, and this is a huge vote of confidence that they accomplished just that.

Game Two:

Miles Mikolas was a big question mark heading into the 2022 season. With rather pedestrian numbers in a banged-up 2021, The Lizard King didn’t leave much to the eyes of your average fan, whether you were analytically inclined or not. 

Naturally, this means he threw a career-high 202.2 innings of 3.29 ERA baseball en route to his second All-Star Game nod. Much like the rest of the Cardinals staff, Miles is not going to dominate with a lot of swing-and-miss stuff. By controlling the quality of contact and letting the defense work for him, Mikolas is probably the best option out of the rotation for St. Louis in this postseason.

Aaron Nola has quietly put up a great season in 2022. He pitched on Monday night and is a big reason why the Phillies won. He started off the game by going 6.2 perfect innings before giving up back-to-back singles. He was then removed from the game.

Nola started 32 games this season and has thrown the second-most innings in all of baseball, 205, and has the fourth-most strikeouts, 235. He has a 3.25 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. Just like Wheeler, Nola will be making his first postseason start, something Phillies fans have wanted to witness since his big league debut in 2015.

Game Three (If Needed):

Ranger Suarez has been good since the second half of the season started, outside of Tuesday night where he pitched 3 innings and gave up 6 runs. Since the All-Star break, Suarez has thrown 71.1 innings, with a 3.15 ERA and 61 strikeouts. The left-handed Suarez will offer a different look if this series gets to a third game, and he has been just as effective as Wheeler and Nola during the second half of the season.

Coming into the year, the lineup for the Phillies was supposed to be one of the best in baseball. With Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Rhys Hoskins, Kyle Schwarber, and Nick Castellanos, they were expected to be able to outscore any team. It hasn’t happened that way on a regular basis, but they have still been an effective offense.

Bryce Harper has not been the same since coming back from his broken thumb on August 26. In his last 109 plate appearances, he is hitting .194/.284/.333 with 3 home runs. If Harper can get his timing back, he could be trouble for the Cardinals’ pitching staff.

This should be fun for St. Louis! They’re going into Game 3 without an announced starter. Given Jose Quintana’s usage in the regular season, I would expect a lot of piggybacking throughout the series, so the name of who starts this game (should it be needed) isn’t a top priority for Oli Marmol and his staff.

Reading the tea leaves, however, I would imagine they turn to Adam Wainwright as the starter. Philadelphia as a team has marginally found better success against LHP, and when you need to go all in, Adam Wainwright has a penchant for answering the bell. Despite dealing with some arm fatigue, I would expect him to at the very least open the game, and they’d play it out from that point on. 

Summary:

The X-Factor for the Cardinals is the starting pitching. With better offense, better defense, and a better bullpen, can the smoke and mirrors of the Cardinals rotation do enough to match what Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola will bring come Friday and Saturday? The answer to that will define the series.

Anything can happen in the playoffs, especially in a best-of-three series. Pitching will be important for the Phillies this weekend, but I think the offense is going to have to shine if they want to advance. Kyle Schwarber has 4 home runs since Saturday, and he will be key to the Phillies’ offense. If he could provide a spark out of the leadoff spot, that would surely benefit the rest of the lineup. Schwarber will be the X-factor in this series for Philadelphia.

Bailey Prediction:

This series should be fun to watch, and with the way the pitching has been lined up by the Phillies, they have a better shot than some people think. I believe these two teams will split the first two games of the series and play a third game on Sunday. While I think the Phillies can win this series, I am picking the Cardinals to win a decisive game three and to advance to the NLDS.

Carson Prediction:

For me, this was going to come down to how Oli Marmol announced the pitching and probable starters. By listing only Game 1 and Game 2, and making it clear it’s all hands on deck, it’s clear in my mind at least he wants and believes this to be over sooner rather than later. While the Phillies have a good team and are worthy of a postseason shot, the lingering injury to Bryce Harper, combined with defensive issues across the diamond, leads me to believe too much will be left on the table. Cardinals in 2.

Carson Melinder

Carson Melinder is a graduate of the University of Iowa who writes about MLB Prospects, Minor League Baseball, and the St. Louis Cardinals. You can find him on Twitter @ashortking

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