By Rob Rains
It was after midnight Wednesday night before the Cardinals knew who they would be playing in the NL Championship Series, and that Friday night’s opening game will be at Busch Stadium instead of in Los Angeles.
Several members of the Cardinals were in a hotel bar in Atlanta, celebrating their win over the Braves and watching game five between the Nationals and Dodgers on television as it went to extra innings. The team had elected to stay in Atlanta on Wednesday night, then fly wherever they were going on Thursday morning.
“You’re kind of expecting to go to Los Angeles there in the 7th, 8th inning and then all of a sudden things are tied and all of a sudden they (the Nationals) got the bases loaded,” said Miles Mikolas. “So you go through a little bit of a roller coaster planning your trip, ‘Oh, we’re going to go to Los Angeles, maybe I’ll have breakfast here, do this, do that.’ And then all of a sudden it’s, ‘Hey, we’re going home, this is great.’ So that was kind of neat.”
Mikolas was told Thursday that he will start the opening game of the series, opposed by the Nationals’ Anibal Sanchez. Adam Wainwright will start game two on Saturday.
Here are five keys for the Cardinals to beat the Nationals and advance to the World Series for the first time since 2013.
Make somebody other than Anthony Rendon or Juan Soto beat them
The Nationals two best players played like the two best players in the Division Series win over the Dodgers. Rendon, who should be a strong challenger to Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger to be the National League’s MVP, was 7-of-17 and drove in five runs in the series. Soto was 5-of-18 with four RBIs. The rest of the regular position players, minus one grand slam from Howie Kendrick, combined for seven RBIs in 99 at-bats.
Rendon was just 3-of-13 against the Cardinals in the regular season while Soto was just 2-of-17 as the Cardinals won five of the seven games between the two teams.
Some of the other key players on the Nationals did not have a great series against the Dodgers. Trea Turner was 6-of-21; Ryan Zimmerman was 4-of-14 and Adam Eaton was 3-of-16.
2. Get into the Nationals bullpen
This was one of the team’s biggest weaknesses during the regular season, which is why they were not above bringing ace Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg into games in relief in between their postseason starts, a clear sign of desperation.
The team’s pitchers not named Scherzer or Strasburg combined to allow 17 runs against the Dodgers in 25 innings.
3Get production from top two spots in the lineup
The first inning in game five on Wednesday in Atlanta showed what can happen if the top two hitters in the Cardinals lineup can be productive on offense, even by drawing a walk and moving the runner to second on a sacrifice bunt.
That was the first time Dexter Fowler had been on base in the series since his ninth-inning single in game one, which led to a game-winning four-run rally. He had only one other hit in 22 at-bats in the series.
Whether it’s Kolten Wong or Tommy Edman hitting second, the spot also will be critical for the Cardinals to try to have runners on base when Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna come up to bat. Combined, the number two hitters were 5-of-21 against the Braves.
4. Take advantage of playing the first two games at home
The Nationals come into this series bursting with confidence after coming back from a 3-0 deficit against the Dodgers, winning the game on Kendrick’s grand slam in the 10th. They had been down in the series two games to one, just as the Cardinals were against the Braves, and that came after they had an improbable rally to beat the Brewers in the Wild Card game.
With Jack Flaherty not pitching until game three, the Cardinals have a chance to jump on the Nationals in the first two games and curb some of their momentum. It also doesn’t hurt that the Cardinals have gone 17-8 against the Nationals at Busch Stadium since the start of the 2012 season.
5. Keep Carlos Martinez focused
One thing that became clear during the Division Series against the Braves is that Martinez is going to get the ball in the ninth inning in a save situation.
Shildt even called on Martinez, with the season on the line, in a tie game in the ninth inning in game four, with the Cardinals facing elimination, going right back to him following his meltdowns in the first and third games of the series.
The fact that Martinez was able to pitch a scoreless inning, and the Cardinals came back to win, hopefully allowed Martinez to regain some confidence that he might have lost in allowing three runs in consecutive outings, because the Cardinals are going to be counting on him again in save situations against the Nationals.
Some other notes from Monday’s workout at Busch Stadium:
* Shildt opened his news conference by apologizing for the X-rated comments in his speech to the team after defeating the Braves, made public on social media.
“The clubhouse is a sanctuary that is very sacred, it’s a private opportunity for us to be able to enjoy and celebrate,” Shildt said. “And yesterday, I got a great opportunity to have a moment with our team that is private, should have been private, and make sure they knew how proud of the accomplishments they have and moving forward, to our staff and our players.
“I apologize if my language offended anyone. It’s not something I like to represent, it’s not to be excused, it’s supposed to be a private moment. But I will say that I’m flawed, I have my moments. I grew up in a clubhouse and one of the crosses I bear is my language. So I have done a nice job over the many years of curbing that and trying to represent always this organization and myself in a positive light, with class and dignity. I feel like I’ve always done that. It was regretful that that was able to get out. I will not apologize for having passion about how I feel about our team and the accomplishments of our team.”
The comments become public when rookie Randy Arozarena streamed Shildt’s speech to the team on social media.
“As far as Randy goes, completely give Randy grace; he was just excited. He’s a great kid with a great heart, and like I said, grace moving forward for him,” Shildt said.
* Shildt said he was “confident” the Cardinals would stick with the same roster from the Division Series in this round. The team has to make that roster official on Friday morning.
* Michael Wacha is making progress, Shildt said, but not enough that the team seriously considered adding him to the roster.
* Dakota Hudson, named to start game four, will be available in the bullpen in games one and two, as he was in Atlanta for the start of the Division Series.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains