Six players to watch in NLCS: Ozuna, Molina key for Cardinals


St. Louis Cardinals' Marcell Ozuna (23) celebrates with Yadier Molina (4) after hitting a solo home run during the fourth inning in Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, in St. Louis. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

The series we all predicted, right?

Yet here we are: the two most fundamentally flawed teams in the post-season meeting for the right to advance to the World Series against whichever beast comes out of the American League.

A team with a rich post-season pedigree, the St. Louis Cardinals, against the Washington Nationals, one franchise with two cities worth of bad post-season karma, knocking out some of the lingering ghosts of 1981 and “Blue Monday” (ask your Montreal cousins of a certain age) and now starring squarely at memories of a soul-sucking meltdown at the hands of the Cardinals in the 2012 NL Division Series. The Nationals built up a 6-0 lead in Game 5 of that series then imploded, with Drew Storen giving up a lead-off double, walking two batters with two strikes and yielding a two-run one-hopper up the middle and a two-run single in top of the ninth to crush the hopes of a very good 98-win Nationals team.

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Here are six players to watch for as the NLCS gets underway Friday night:

Daniel Hudson, right-handed reliever, Nationals
Hudson, who will start the NLCS on the post-season paternity list, was acquired at the trade deadline from the Toronto Blue Jays for minor league pitcher Kyle Johnson and, for whatever reason, immediately started using his fastball with greater frequency en route to an ERA of 1.44 compared to his 3.00 while with the Blue Jays.

His strikeout/walk ratio went from 2/1 to roughly 6/1 and while Nationals manager Dave Martinez aggressively used starters as relievers, he called on Hudson in four of five National League Division Series games.

The back end of the Nationals bullpen is a concern, but for now, Martinez seems inclined to not completely run and hide from having Hudson set up closer Sean Doolittle and that’s a good thing. Barring rain, there are no extra off-days in the LCS schedule to compensate for the possibility of two more games, so that might give Martinez pause when it comes to cavalierly rolling out starters in relief. Still, the Nationals bullpen ERA of 5.66 was the worst-ever for a playoff team and the 10th-worst of any club in the divisional era, which runs back to 1969.

Keeping those demons at bay is job No. 1 for Martinez; Hudson might be his one and only option out of the ‘pen.

Carlos Martinez, right-handed closer, Cardinals
It’s never a good sign when you feel as if you’ve just avoided some calamity when your closer finishes a game but … have you seen Martinez pitch this post-season?

The Nationals were one of the four hardest teams in the Majors to put away with two strikes in 2019 and while Martinez can flash electric stuff, he has had his wobbles in a small career sample size against the Nationals and has given up two long home runs so far this post-season in 3 1/3 innings.

He’s blown kisses at opposing baserunners, lost his mind after being shown up and at one point Cardinals manager Mike Shildt suggested openly he might “re-evaluate” his role. As we mentioned in discussing Hudson’s importance to the Nationals: starters coming in from the bullpen in high-leverage situations is very much a thing these days, but at times it can be hard to run away and hide from your relievers in a seven-game series.

Yadier Molina, catcher, Cardinals
Baby-sitting Martinez and 23-year-old ace Jack Flaherty is going to be part of the gig for Molina.

Like the Cardinals, Washington has willing baserunners with an athletic lineup. The teams tied for the NL lead in stolen bases, and while the Nationals didn’t steal against the Dodgers, that part of their game will be needed in a longer series.

Molina is still above Major League average in throwing out baserunners. The Nationals are also a two-strike offensive machine – the best in the NL – and Molina is the best catcher left in the post-season in terms of pitch framing, which could save the odd extra pitch. He’s capable of offensive dramatics, as he showed in Game 4 of the NLDS.

Molina is an all-time, Cardinals post-season great. He has more post-season hits (93) than any other player in franchise history – admittedly with the benefit of extra games due to the restructured playoff format after the 1994 players strike – but those 93 hits are just 10 away from Jorge Posada’s post-season totals for catchers. Among active players he’s first in hits and second in total bases. He has two World Series rings.

Translation: he has experience, and while the past doesn’t always predict the present in post-season play, there’s something about the personalities and dynamics of this matchup that suggests the steadier hand might the get edge.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Marcell Ozuna, outfield, Cardinals
I tabbed him as one of my six to watch in the division series because after a poor finish to the regular season, there was understandable concern that Paul Goldschmidt wouldn’t get anything to hit in front of him.

Five games later, he gets a return not because of the impact he can have on Goldschmidt, but because he hit a pair of home runs and five runs batted in with a 1.335 OPS. He also has impressive career numbers against Max Scherzer (10-for-36 with two HRs) and Stephen Strasburg (14-for-44 with three HRs) and has twice taken Hudson yard.

Goldschmidt? He hit .429 in the NLDS and had a 1.383 OPS. These are two super-athletic teams, but the offensive battle could be decided in the middle of the orders.

Speaking of which …

Juan Soto, left field, Nationals
He might own October before all this is done.

It was clear from the start of the NLDS that the Dodgers were fixated on Soto, who seldom saw a fastball in the zone in his 22 plate appearances in what friend Tom Verducci has so accurately tabbed as being the “Postseason of Spin.”

Yet, Soto is a puzzle for opposing pitchers. He reads spin well, and while his OPS against righties this season was 1.000 compared to .850 against lefties, his batting average is actually higher against southpaws.

The Cardinals got in the head of another of the game’s bright young stars in the NLDS, flummoxing the Braves’ Ronald Acuna, Jr., but Soto is a different matter entirely. Something to keep in mind in general when thinking about this series from an offensive perspective: the Nationals’ team OPS was 43 points higher against lefty pitching compared to righties this season and barring something unforeseen the Cardinals won’t be using a lefty starter.

Stephen Strasburg, right-handed starter, Nationals
The baseball gods are never shy of showing us they have a sense of humour.

It was the Cardinals who stunned the Nationals in the 2012 NLDS, with the largest ever comeback in an elimination game, and one of the talking points going into that post-season was the fact the Nationals shut down the then-23 year-old Strasburg because he was on an innings limit coming off Tommy John surgery.

He doesn’t throw as hard as he used to but, man, have times changed for Strasburg, who is now so reliable that he can come in and pitch relief around his post-season starts.

He’s has bought into spin, using more curves and change-ups against the Dodgers in the NLDS than he did against them in the regular-season. Strasburg oddly flies under the radar now – odd because he is technically the highest-paid player in the game at $38-million – but has a 1.32 career post-season ERA and 0.882 post-season WHIP in 34 post-season innings with 45 strikeouts and five walks.

He gets Flaherty in Game 3. Can’t wait.

WHY CHEER FOR THE CARDINALS: You’ll see Ozuna’s name linked with the Blue Jays as a free agent. Just did as a matter of fact.

WHY CHEER FOR THE NATIONALS: Third base coach Bob Henley is one of the few guys still in a Major League uniform who can claim they played in a Major League game for the Montreal Expos: 41 games in 1998. F.P. Santangelo is their broadcaster. Works for me.

PICK: Washington in six.

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