It's been a year of firsts for Miles Mikolas.
He got the nod for his first Opening Day start back in March. Then, when the Cardinals reached the postseason, Mikolas was tabbed for Game 1 of the NLDS against Atlanta. Now, another milestone awaits Miles Friday.
He's the Game 1 starter in the National League Championship Series.
"Thinking about who you want to play for, you want to play for teams that are wanting to win, that are contenders, that are trying to get to the playoffs," Mikolas said. "And that is the St. Louis Cardinals. And to be on their list of guys who started Game 1 is humbling, it's an honor, and it's going to be a whole lot of fun."
Mikolas (9-14, 4.16 ERA) will be opposed by Anibal Sanchez (11-8, 3.85 ERA) for the Nationals. Like Mikolas, Sanchez was selected for just one start out of five games in his team's NLDS. Also like Mikolas, he posted a strong outing to give his team a legitimate chance to win that game.
Both of Friday's Game 1 starters threw five innings of one-run baseball in their NLDS starts. Though Sanchez's nine strikeouts jumped off the page compared to Mikolas' two, the Nats bullpen blew his start. The Cardinals won both games in which Mikolas appeared in the NLDS, including Game 4, when Mikolas earned the win with an extra-inning relief appearance.
Mikolas was stingy with base runners in the NLDS, allowing just three hits and two walks in six total innings.
The only trouble Mikolas had in the series occurred right at the beginning. He typically exhibits impeccable command of the strike zone, having walked just 32 batters all season. His walk rate of 1.57 BB/9 ranked fourth among all qualified MLB starter this season. So it was certainly a surprise when Mikolas opened the NLDS in Atlanta by issuing back-to-back walks to Braves hitters.
The jitters that accompany such a big moment shouldn't be as prominent when he takes the ball Friday.
"Got those, got a little bit over-excitement out of the way, I think," Mikolas said regarding the early moments of that NLDS start. "And another takeaway from that game is my team has my back to an incredible degree. I walked the leadoff guy, Yadi throws him out, give up a run there, scuff up the 1st, and we come back and score a run in the 3rd or 4th, and then we battle back all game to win that game.
"So just knowing that no matter what I do out there that my team's going to have my back, we're going to scratch and claw, do whatever we can to win that game, that's a good feeling to have."
Looking at the series on paper, it would seem prudent for the Cardinals offense to have Mikolas' back with some runs in Game 1 Friday. Though Sanchez is a veteran of the league with a 2.98 ERA across 48.1 career postseason innings, he's probably the least imposing starter in the Nationals' arsenal for this NLCS.
With Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin looming—potentially even out of the bullpen in Game 1—it feels almost necessary for the Cardinals to get off on the right foot in this series Friday.
"Listen, we're prepared for most any and all things that will come at us," Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said of Washington's tendency to use their stud starting pitchers in relief roles so far this postseason. "So one of the advantages we'll have with that is we're familiar with their starters, we played them recently, they're guys that are established in the league, we got some guys that are also established that are familiar with them, so we'll just be prepared for whoever comes out of that bullpen to have a good game plan and we'll be ready to execute and compete."
Knowing games aren't settled on paper, Mikolas doesn't spend much time fretting over how Washington's 'Big 3' starting pitchers could give the other side an edge in the series.
"The great thing about sports is that anything can happen on any given day regardless of how many Cy Young awards you have, how many All Star games you have, how many strikeouts their staff has," Mikolas said. "It's baseball, that stuff is in the past, it's stuff you got to look at, they got a great pitching staff, but it's the playoffs, anything can happen."
The Cardinals have plenty of reason to feel confident in their own starting rotation for the series, given the masterpiece Adam Wainwright tossed in Game 3 of the NLDS. Wainwright, who has been dynamite at Busch Stadium all season, is slated to get the ball in the team's home ballpark in Game 2 Saturday, which would also put him on schedule to pitch again at Busch in a potential Game 6.
"It was a part of it," Shildt said of slotting Wainwright behind Mikolas in order to set him up for the possibility of two starts at home in the series. "We also kept the same order in which that we just got through participating in the previous series. So that was effectively how we thought about it. We talked about this and continue to look at our decision process and realize that we have got a lot of really good options. And so feel confident about Miles in Game 1, clearly, and Waino Game 2, and we'll forward from there."
That moving forward will include ace starter Jack Flaherty in another road tilt Monday in Game 3. That also lines him up to pitch a possible Game 7 at home. Dakota Hudson is slated for one start in the series, Game 4 on Tuesday. Mike Shildt said Hudson is also available out of the bullpen for Games 1 and 2.