NL Wild Card Preview: Cardinals vs. Dodgers

A 2021 NL Wild Card preview for the matchup between the Dodgers and the Cardinals.

Max Scherzer
SAN DIEGO, CA - AUGUST 26: Max Scherzer #31 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches during the third inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park on August 26, 2021 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

The St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers will clash head-to-head Wednesday evening at Dodger Stadium for a date with the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS. The battle between these two squads is one that should not be overlooked. Despite being Wild Card teams, the Cardinals and Dodgers are two of the hottest teams in the league heading into their elimination game.

How They Got Here

For the Cardinals, their 22-7 record in the month of September that included a 17-game winning streak helped lead them to pass up the Reds and Phillies for the final Wild Card spot with a 90-72 record to close out the season, finishing five games back of the first-place Milwaukee Brewers.

The Dodgers persisted through injuries, numerous one-run and extra inning losses, and the ongoing Trevor Bauer saga, while also posting the second-best record in all of baseball. Unfortunately for LA, that was also second-best in their division by one game to the San Francisco Giants. The Dodgers closed out the regular season with a 106-56 record.

Offensive Outlook

The St. Louis Cardinals primarily ride on the coattails from the production at the top of the order. Paul Goldschmidt, Tyler O’Neill, and Nolan Arenado are a fierce three in the order that have produced time and time again. Goldschmidt finished the regular season with a .294/.365/.514 slash line, leading the Cardinals with 177 hits to go with his 31 homers and 99 RBI’s. O’Neill’s .286/352/.560 slash line is equally as impressive to go with his elite glove and 34 homers in only 482 at-bats.

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Arenado posted a .255/.312/.494 line in his first year out of Coors Field. However, it is nothing to scoff at considering he still roped 34 doubles, 34 homers, and a team-leading 105 RBI’s. As a team, the Cardinals ranked 11th in baseball with a .244 team average, tied with the Atlanta Braves and none other than the LA Dodgers. The Cardinals struggled to consistently get on base, ranking 19th in the league in on-base percentage. St. Louis ranks right in the middle of the pack with a .725 team OPS.

The Dodgers offensive will look a little different in the Wild Card Game with Max Muncy out with a left elbow injury. He does not have a torn UCL, however, he will be out for the game and the NLDS if the Dodgers can get there. Luckily for LA, they have plenty of reinforcements in their lineup to fill the void at first base Muncy leaves. Could we potentially see Albert Pujols start at first base against his former team in a playoff game after being released earlier this year? It will be a storyline to monitor there. If it is not Pujols, expect Cody Bellinger to shift over to first, sending Chris Taylor or Gavin Lux out to centerfield.

Matt Beaty is another potential option at the position, however Dave Roberts has said he prefers Beaty in more of a utility role off the bench. Meanwhile, the heart of the lineup with Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, Trea Turner, Justin Turner, and AJ Pollock should remain at the top of the order. Expect Will Smith to sit in this game in favor of Austin Barnes simply from a defensive standpoint. The 4th ranked team in on-base percentage and 5th ranked team on OPS should still be as threatening as ever if they can find the consistency they found during the final week of the season.

Pitching Outlook

The Cardinals will send their ageless wonder and ace Adam Wainwright to the hill following a remarkable 17-7 season in which he posted a 3.05 ERA in the process. Over the last month, Wainwright posted a respectable 3.86 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 30 1/3 innings pitched. The one concern for Wainwright might very well be how many bats he can miss considering he struck out less than five hitters over nine innings during the past month. However, we know Wainwright can be dominant. In his start on September 8th against the Dodgers, Wainwright went 8 1/3 innings while allowing only two runs heading into the ninth inning before coughing up two more in the final frame. 

Many people point to Justin Verlander as the acquisition that helped put the Astros over the top in the 2017 World Series over the Dodgers. In 2021, Los Angeles decided to make the big move and acquire future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer (as well as possible MVP candidate and batting champion Trea Turner) at the trade deadline. Since joining LA, Scherzer has posted an insane 7-0 record and a 1.98 ERA. He is one of the favorites for the Cy Young Award and is also expected to help push his new team past St. Louis and into a matchup with the Dodgers rivals in the NLDS. Scherzer pitched in the 2019 National League Wild Card Game as a member of the Nationals, going five innings and allowing three runs in a game the Nationals would eventually win in their journey to the title. In his September 6th start on the road in St. Louis, Scherzer was dominant. Mad Max went out and struck out 13 hitters in eight innings of work, good for a 5-1 win over the Cardinals.

Key Players to Watch

While Tyler O’Neill may have been the hottest player at the plate in baseball over the last month, Harrison Bader played a key role in the Cardinals success. Bader posted a .315/.357/.576 slash line over the final month of the season and St. Louis will need his production to help lengthen the lineup late in the game. Expect his speed to play a key role on the base paths along with Tommy Edman.

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Kenley Jansen had a rough start to the 2021 season. However, he finished incredibly strong with a 0.71 ERA and 0.47 WHIP over the 12 2/3 innings in the final month of the season, striking out 18 batters and recording eight saves in the process. It’s hard to say how the Dodgers will game plan following Scherzer’s departure in the game. If we learned anything from Gerrit Cole in the American League Wild Card, your aces can’t always deliver. If Jansen is called upon in a high leverage situation or in the 9th inning to close out the game, expect the collective blood pressure around Los Angeles to be through the roof.

Playoff history

This is the fifth time the two teams will have met in the postseason and St. Louis has certainly had the upper hand. In their first meeting, the Cardinals defeated the Dodgers in six games during the 1985 NLCS, including the famous walk-off homer by Ozzie Smith in Game 5. The Cardinals would once again defeat the Dodgers in 2004, this time in the NLDS in four games thanks to Albert Pujols, Larry Walker, and Edgar Renteria torching the Dodgers offense. The Dodgers would finally get their revenge in 2009, sweeping the Cardinals in the NLDS thanks to Dodger favorite Andre Ethier hitting .500 in the series while Matt Holliday made a crucial error with the Dodgers down to their final strike, leading to a Mark Loretta walk-off base hit in Game 2.

The most memorable playoff moments in this mini rivalry may have been in 2013 when the Cardinals defeated the Dodgers in six games during the NLCS. Much talk surrounded now-Dodger Joe Kelly knocking out Hanley Ramirez with a fastball to the ribs. The same Joe Kelly also faced off against Scott Van Slyke in an epic standoff before Game 6. Many will also remember it as the series that Michael Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal could not be touched. 2014 is the last time these teams faced off in the NLDS, with the Cardinals winning in four games thanks to a clutch, bases-clearing double by Matt Carpenter in Game 1, a go-ahead homer by Matt Kemp in Game 2, and a series deciding homer by Matt Adams in Game 4. 

Overall Outlook/Prediction

The Dodgers deserve better than being stuck in an elimination game after recording the most wins in a regular season in franchise history. However, they are stuck facing a very familiar opponent that has certainly presented them with trouble in the past. Expect Max Scherzer and Adam Wainwright to go as deep as possible in the contest. While both bullpens are very solid, it may be the team that gets forces the other to use their bullpens first that may decide this. 

The Dodgers took the season series 4-3. That will be the final score in favor of LA, leading the Dodgers to face off against the Giants in the NLDS.