The defending World Champion St Louis Cardinals are the class of the National League, and all of baseball, on May 11th. Their 20-11 record is just half a game behind the Rangers for the best mark in all of baseball. More importantly, the Cardinals have a +75 run differential, which is seven better than the Rangers and 51 better than the Braves in the National League. Coincidentally, the Cardinals opponent at Busch Stadium this weekend....is said Atlanta Braves.
The Braves have had a mediocre May thusfar. They swept the Rockies at Coors Field, but lost a series at home to division rival Philadelphia, while also managing to only score five runs in a series loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field. The Braves still have a 4-2 record this road trip, and just one win in this series against the Cardinals will ensure a winning trip. But that won't be an easy task at all. The Cardinals have the best offense in the NL, with an .824 OPS that is 60 points higher than the second-best Rockies. Their pitching staff has a 3.07 ERA, second best in the NL behind the Nationals. Their pitching charge is led by the rotation, which has a 2.82 ERA (again, second best in the NL).
Atlanta has had an interesting season when it comes to their component stats. The team is winning games based on offense, not pitching. The team's .745 OPS is third in the NL, while on the mound, their 4.25 ERA is just 13th in the league. The Braves rotation, thought to be one of the best in the league this year, has struggled with a 4.44 ERA. Their bullpen, dominant just a year ago, has slipped to a 3.88 ERA, but a majority of that comes from the awful Chad Durbin.
The Braves do get a slight break in this series, as they'll be facing the worst Cardinals starter, Adam Wainwright, on Saturday. However, Wainwright is bookended by Jaime Garcia (3.76 ERA, 3.08 FIP) on Friday, and the breakout pitcher of the year, Lance Lynn, on Sunday. Atlanta will send the horrifically unlucky Mike Minor to the mound tonight (who has a FIP two runs lower than his ERA), Brandon Beachy (a rotation leading 1.62 ERA) on Saturday, and the always solid Tommy Hanson on Sunday.
When it comes to offense, the Braves are led by their outfield. Michael Bourn, Jason Heyward, and Martin Prado have each been worth at least one win this season, and add fantastic defense to their hot bats. When healthy, third baseman Chipper Jones has powered the offense, homering five times in just 21 games. It's been a career renaissance for Jones, who will retire after this season. The right side of the infield, Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman, have both also hitting well for the Braves, combining for ten homers and 45 RBI this year. The only below average regulars on offense for the Braves have been rookie shortstop Tyler Pastornicky (not surprising) and catcher Brian McCann (very surprising), who is actually being outhit this year by his backup, David Ross.
The Cardinals offense has been led by a pair of men that weren't Cardinals at the beginning of last year: shortstop Rafael Furcal (who has a .931 OPS in the leadoff hole), and free agent signing Carlos Beltran, who already has ten homers and five stolen bases, and is looking like the guy the Mets gave a nine figure contract to years ago. Playoff hero David Freese has continued his hitting prowess into the regular season with a .925 OPS this year, and catcher Yadier Molina is playing with a renewed fire after getting a contract extension. And Allen Craig, who missed the first month of the year, has a .778 slugging percentage in just seven games this season.
It'll be a difficult series for both teams, but it's worth noting that the Cardinals have had a very easy schedule so far, playing just seven games against teams above .500 (and those teams are each just one and two games over .500). St Louis has feasted on the weak NL Central so far, playing six games each against the Brewers, Pirates, and Cubs. In fact, they've played just four games out of the division: three against the Diamondbacks (who they swept) and one against the Marlins to kick off the year. They're beating the hell out of everyone so far, but these really aren't great teams they're playing. Atlanta will be the first significant challenge for the Cardinals this year. However, it IS worth noting that the Cardinals are 4-0 in the non-central games they've played this year, and 5-2 in the games against teams above .500.
The Braves have had a very divergent schedule, with 12 games against teams above .500 (5-7 record), and just nine games within in the NL East (3-6 record). The only team they've played more than once is the Mets, whom they played six of their first twelve games against. There hasn't been much of an overlap in Atlanta's schedule, which is a huge contrast when compared to St Louis's schedule.
Despite all that, the Cardinals are still a much better, much more complete team. The last time the teams played was last September, and the Cardinals swept ther series en route to an 18-8 finish that propelled them over the Braves to a playoff berth and eventually, a World Championship. For a pick, I'm going to say that the Cardinals take two out of three, only losing the middle game of the series.
Photos courtesy of Daylife.com
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