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Underdog Cardinals are the value play over the Nationals in 2019 NLCS

The NLCS features a matchup many didn’t expect with the Nationals and Cardinals. Steve Buchanan dives into the numbers to preview this series.

MLB: NLDS-St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The official name of this series is indeed the National League Championship Series. In reality, it should be called the “Underdog Series” as both teams defeated the favored team in their National League Division Series. It certainly changed the betting landscape, as the Dodgers were the favored team to come out of the National League and into the World Series.

We’re not here to go over the past though. We’re here to talk about the now and the later for this NLCS. The Nationals and Cardinals are set to begin on Friday evening at Busch Stadium, as the Cardinals will benefit from having home-field advantage. Let’s take a look at how these teams match up against each other.

Washington Nationals

In the eyes of many, this Nationals team was not supposed to be here. They drew the short end of the stick with a series against the Dodgers, who were looking to make it to their third straight World Series appearance. Instead, the Nats took them the distance and find themselves in the NLCS.

This time around, the Nationals are the favorites in the series, as DraftKings Sportsbook has them at -125 for the series win. The Nationals were nearly a .500 team on the road this season, sporting a 43-38 record. They were much better at home, where they boasted a 50-31 record.

The biggest advantage the Nationals have in this series is their starting rotation. Don’t let Anibal Sanchez starting Game 1 fool you, the rotation behind him is downright intimidating. While the rotation is yet to be set, the Cardinals will see Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. If the Nationals want to take this series against the Cardinals, however, they’ll need some better performances amongst this group. These three combined for 36 1⁄3 innings and allowed 19 runs (17 earned) on 35 hits and 50 strikeouts.

The Nationals bullpen is their biggest weakness. At the conclusion of the regular season, this bullpen had a 4.94 FIP. For those unfamiliar, FIP is what ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher(s) were to have experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing. That mark was the fifth-highest in the league when the season concluded. We saw their hesitance to go to the bullpen in the Wild Card game, as they had Strasburg enter in relief of Scherzer against the Brewers. In a long seven-game series, this could come back to bite them, especially if their starting rotation struggles as they have during the regular season against this team.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals were able to beat the Braves in five games after averaging 5.6 runs per game. Looks great on paper but that number is heavily weighted towards the 13 they posted in Game 5. In those other four games, the Cardinals averaged just 3.2 runs. Their offense has been a problem all season long, so it’s quite remarkable they’ve made it as far as they have on what’s been an average at best offense. At the conclusion of the regular season, this time combined for a slash line of .245/.322/.415. As you’d imagine, all these totals hovered around league average or below.

Being underdogs may benefit the Cardinals at the end of the day. In these situations, the Cardinals had a 37-33 record, which was the second-best mark in the league. Only the Twins sported a better record at 30-24. For reference, six teams won at least 50 percent of their games as underdogs during the regular season. Home field advantage will certainly come into play as well. At Busch Stadium, the team ended the regular season had a 50-31 record. Like the Nationals, they were just above .500 on the road at 41-40. When underdogs at home, like they are in Game 1, the Cardinals went 13-6, good for a 68.4 percent win rate, which was the second-highest total in the league.

While the Nationals have arguably three ace quality pitchers on their staff, the Cardinals rely upon Jack Flaherty to take that role. Against the Nationals, Flaherty made one start, tossing five innings allowing just one run on three hits and striking out five. He’s by far been their best pitcher but doesn’t have the consistency surrounding him with names like Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright and Dakota Hudson. The rest of the staff went a combined 38 1⁄3 innings allowing 11 runs (nine earned) on 38 hits and 24 strikeouts. Unlike the Nats, this staff has had success against the Nationals, which is another positive for the underdogs.

Final Thoughts

Despite the heavy names in the rotation, I think the Cardinals find a way to steal this series against the favored Nationals. While the Nationals have the better offense, their numbers are weighted more towards left-handed pitching, which the Cardinals do not have in their starting rotation. Getting the Cardinals at +105 to win the series isn’t the best value on the board but I think they’re being underrated in this matchup. As for my prediction? Cardinals in six.

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