NLDS Preview: Are the Nationals Too Much for the Giants to Handle?

Can Adam LaRoche translate what he did in the regular season to the NLDS?

The Giants stomped on the Pirates and are now taking on the Nationals to start the Division Series in the National League. While Pittsburgh was a formidable opponent, Washington is cut from a different stone.

The Nationals have the best record in the National League. Their pitching staff is awesome. They can beat you with or without the long ball. They knew they’d win their division much sooner than most, and have their ace going for them in game one, whereas the Giants had to use theirs just to get where they are now.

We've now got a team that’s been expected to be in close contention to win the World Series versus one that’s won it twice in the past four seasons. Let’s look at which one should come out on top.

How the Nationals Got Here

Washington has the best starting rotation in the league. The Dodgers may have the better 1-2 punch between the two, but no one has depth like these guys do. Their starters’ combined ERA on the season was 2.92, and they averaged almost 6.1 innings per start as a whole.

Stephen Strasburg has put in a quality season, even though he hasn’t become the ace of all aces like was expected of him when he was drafted. He reached the 200-inning mark for the first time in his career, a major step in his maturation. Although his WHIP saw a slight climb, his FIP dropped from last season, down to a 2.94.

What’s most impressive is that Strasburg also had his first 200-strikeout season, tying for the NL lead in strikeouts with Johnny Cueto at 242. Even with his rough outings where he let up as much as seven earned runs, Strasburg has been able to bounce back every time. On top of that, now he has a more favorable matchup because he isn’t facing Madison Bumgarner.

It’ll be interesting to see who gets shipped to the bullpen with Jordan Zimmermann being the obvious second option and Doug Fister being announced as the game three starter. Now it’s between Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez, even with Gonzalez being their only lefty. Gonzalez may have the highest ERA among the five, but his FIP is comfortably better than Tanner Roark’s (3.47), making him a little more reliable if the defense doesn’t always have his back.

Either way, the five of them have been the core of the Nationals’ success in 2014 and the rest of the squad will be reliant on them.

Looking at their lineup, there isn’t much to criticize either. Ian Desmond continues to prove that he is a top-flight shortstop, especially with his stick. Anthony Rendon has blossomed, hitting an impressive .287 with 21 home runs, behind Desmond (24) and Adam LaRoche (26).

The D.C.-nine have been great this year and without their mainstay, Ryan Zimmerman. He only played 61 games this year with Danny Espinosa filling in as a solid replacement.

Now the Nats have everyone back at full health and it will be interesting to see what the can do.

How the Giants Got Here

Well, Bumgarner showed up in full form at the wild card game, striking out 10 in his complete game shutout. He outshone Edinson Volquez immensely and gave all the other Giant arms a night off.

The offense exploded against the Pirates, with Joe Panik, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt all logging multi-hit games. The hero of the day was Brandon Crawford, with his fourth inning grand slam of Volquez, providing more than enough offense for Bumgarner.

Now the Giants look to carry their playoff magic into the next round against the NL's top seed.

Keys to Victory for Washington

Thankfully for the Nationals, they have the best pitching in the playoffs and a high-octane offense. The are the fourth-best playoff team in wOBA, second in the NL to the Dodgers, and narrowly trailed the Giants in runs per game in September, while outranking them throughout all 162 games.

LaRoche’s performance in the series will be key for their offense, given that San Francisco’s starting rotation is all right-handed after Bumgarner and most of their go-to relievers are right-handed. LaRoche is hitting .280 against righties to his .204 versus lefties this year, and with 21 of his 26 dingers coming off of right-handed pitchers.

He has hit .357 against Jake Peavy with three long balls and has had some success in the few times he’s batted against Ryan Vogelsong. He hasn’t done so hot against Tim Lincecum or Tim Hudson, so depending on who starts between Lincecum and Vogelsong could be huge in terms of LaRoche’s success. Ironically, the Nationals’ first baseman has hit well enough against Bumgarner, batting .286, so it won’t be a huge drop off when the lefty takes the mound.

The bullpen has been sketchy for the Nationals all season, despite having the premiere setup man, Tyler Clippard, and the resurgent Drew Storen. The main problem has been Rafael Soriano, who blew seven saves on the season. In Soriano’s nine playoff games, he has given up four earned runs. He hasn’t given up a run in his last five playoff games, which is good because Washington will need his help at some point.

Now that Soriano is out as the closer, after getting only four save opportunities in September and blowing two of them, the weight is once again on the back of Storen to finish close games. He ran with the opportunity when it was given to him again, converting the 10 chances he was given last month.

Although Storen has been at his best this year, with career bests in ERA (1.12) and WHIP (0.98) to go with an excellent 2.71 FIP, this situation looks similar to 2012. Although he didn’t hit the DL like he did in 2012, he wasn’t in the closer role until the last month of the season. Now manager Matt Williams is putting all the pressure back on Storen. Storen needs to finish these games off for Washington if they hope to move on because if he doesn’t, then they lose another reliable arm in an already questionable bullpen. These playoffs will define Storen’s future as a closer and whether or not he will continue to bear that title.

Keys to Victory for San Francisco

San Francisco’s lineup has hit well against the nationals pitching this year, despite their limited amount of home runs. Gregor Blanco has gone 3-6 against Zimmermann and hit .286 against Strasburg in 14 career at-bats. The Panda is 6-13 against Zimmerman and 5-8 versus Fister.

The matchup between Fister and the Giants will be interesting, given how effective he was when he last met the Giants in the playoffs. The righty went six innings and gave up one run in a losing effort where Bumgarner shut down the Tigers offense.

With Fister facing the Giant offense again (with six starters from that same lineup), will the Giants be able to turn the tables and post more runs than their previous playoff encounter? Last time, Bumgarner bailed out his fielders, shutting down the Tiger-offense in the 2012 World Series. But he (or whoever else would start game three) may not have the same such luck against the Nationals. Things should shape up for a Fister-Bumgarner rematch in game three and it will be great to see what happens in the pivotal game.

Who has the Upper Hand?

The Nationals have the third best chance of winning the World Series (15.6%) based on our metrics, with their nERD being 0.26 points higher than the Giants, too.

Bumgarner may be the better ace in this series, but the earliest he will throw is game three from the looks of it, and the Nationals depth at starter can’t be ignored, even in the five-game format.

It will come down to one thing in the end—the Nationals bullpen. If Storen and Clippard can provide that safe bridge to the games end every time they trot out, then the Nationals will win this series. If not, then it’s hard to imagine that the Giants won’t overload Washington with late-game heroics.