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Well that was fun, wasn't it? The Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals are set to face off in the National League Championship Series after a pair of Game 5 upsets in the NLDS - the former rallying back for an epic extra-innings win, the latter dropping a first-inning 10-spot to cruise to the next round.
The Cardinals get home-field advantage in this seven-game series, though that didn't count for much in either team's Game 5 road win. Which club will ride the momentum to an unexpected World Series berth?
This series is priced tighter than any other so far this postseason: The Nationals are narrow -115 favorites, while the Cardinals are -105 underdogs. Both teams are 3-1 to win the World Series, trailing the Houston Astros (3-2) and New York Yankees (5-2) but coming in ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays (6-1).
St. Louis is -120 to win Game 1, which could be significant for this series. The Game 1 winner has won eight of the last 10 championship series, though both losses came in last year's championship round.
Each of these teams pulled off stunning series wins to reach this stage, but the Nationals have stolen the spotlight after slaying the title-favorite Los Angeles Dodgers. As long as they avoid an NLDS hangover, they look like the class of the National League.
Washington finished the regular season ranked second in the NL in runs (873) and OPS (.796) and second in pitching WAR (22.3), according to FanGraphs. The Dodgers led all three categories. With elite starting pitching and an effective top of the order in Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon, and Juan Soto, the Nationals' roster suggests that production wasn't a matter of overachievement.
Rendon and Soto blasted back-to-back shots off Clayton Kershaw to flip the momentum of Game 5, but the Nationals can win with small ball, too, boasting the second-highest OBP (.342) in baseball. The trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, meanwhile, is built for October - even if an abysmal bullpen forced Washington's starters into excess relief duty during the NLDS.
Make no mistake: The Nats' bullpen could pose a problem over seven games. Yet its impact might be dulled against a Cardinals lineup that ranked 19th in runs (764) and 21st in OPS (.737) through the regular season. St. Louis was better over the back half of the year, but its struggles against breaking balls continued versus the Atlanta Braves. Washington's staff has the off-speed stuff to give the Cardinals' bats fits; Strasburg alone might be unhittable.
St. Louis' best weapons in this series are ace Jack Flaherty (2.75 ERA) and a stellar defense. But Flaherty controversially threw 104 pitches in that Game 5 blowout of Atlanta and likely won't be available until Game 3 at the earliest. And though the rest of the Cardinals' staff is adept at coaxing ground balls into a stellar infield, the Nationals were among the better teams at avoiding ground-ball contact this season.
Washington has done much of its damage this year against lefties - including during its series versus the Dodgers. That won't matter against a Cardinals staff comprised almost exclusively of right-handed pitchers. That same staff also held a potent Braves lineup to just .385 slugging, which was better than what the Nationals managed in the NLDS (.358). Is it enough to tip the scales for the home team?
If their regular-season meetings are any indication, the Cardinals match up well against the Nationals. St. Louis took five of seven games versus Washington in 2019, including two against Scherzer and one each against Strasburg and Corbin. The rest of the regular-season trends, though, paint a less favorable picture.
Both teams are hot entering this series, but St. Louis limped into the playoffs with four losses in its final five games amid a 10-9 run to the NLDS. The Nationals, meanwhile, went 14-9 with eight straight wins to close out the regular season, finishing with 93 victories to the Cardinals' 91.
In the last five years, simply betting the "better" team has been incredibly profitable. Teams with better records are 94-64 straight up (59.5%) since 2015 with a 12.3% return on investment. Those numbers jump to an incredible 34-17 SU (66.7%) and 24% ROI since 2017, even after accounting for the juice of betting mostly favorites.
The Nationals were an impressive 47-19 SU (71.2%) this year against teams with fewer wins. That was the best such winning percentage in MLB, and it yielded baseball's highest betting return (+$1,613) in that spot. St. Louis went a respectable 26-26 versus teams with better records, but it was still a losing bet in those situations and could be overmatched in this series.
The Cardinals have been to this stage before and the Nationals famously haven't, so that alone makes St. Louis worth a look. But is it enough? It's hard to see where the Cardinals have an edge in this series; Washington's starters and regular rotation players are simply better, and both bullpens have had their fair share of struggles.
If St. Louis was getting plus-money value, it might be worth taking a stab on the home team with experience. But getting worse than even odds on an inferior roster isn't a strong play. With Flaherty likely starting just one of the first six games, there's even value on betting the Nationals to clean this series up in six contests or fewer.
C Jackson Cowart is a betting writer for theScore. He's an award-winning journalist with stops at The Charlotte Observer, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Times Herald-Record, and BetChicago. He's also a proud graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, and his love of sweet tea is rivaled only by that of a juicy prop bet. Find him on Twitter @CJacksonCowart.