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Nats survive their first postseason experience

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Nats survive their first postseason experience

ST. LOUIS -- Twenty-one of the 25 players on their roster had never experienced this before. Neither had approximately 99 percent of their fan base back home in Washington.

Jayson Werth, though, had been here. He's been through the meat grinder of the postseason, and he knows what kind of toll it can take on teams and players who are entering uncharted territory.

"A lot of times you see teams in their first games, the first time they're there, and they crack or buckle," the veteran right fielder said. "I feel like we definitely gave a little bit, but we didn't break."

Oh, the Nationals gave plenty to the Cardinals Sunday afternoon in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. If not for the giant scoreboard in center field at Busch Stadium, a casual observer might well have thought they were trailing by a touchdown in the top of the eighth inning, not by a single run.

This, though, is what postseason baseball is all about. It's a roller-coaster of emotions. One minute you're sky-high, the next you're cursing yourself after a squandered opportunity.

The postseason is about hitting in the clutch, making big pitches with runners in scoring position and coming up big in the field with everything on the line.

For seven innings, the Nationals failed in just about every manner possible. And then they flipped a switch and thrived in all three facets, escaping with a 3-2 victory that felt like the most important victory in team history.

Which, of course, it was. After a 98-win season, the NL East title and all sorts of new-found attention for a franchise that had never even spent a day on the fringes of the spotlight, the Nationals entered this series with a bullseye squarely on their chests.

Forced to open on the road against the defending World Series champs, they suddenly found themselves facing real pressure for one of the first times in their charmed season. And -- despite everything their manager and they insisted in the days leading up to it -- they played like a team that was caught up in the moment.

Gio Gonzalez couldn't find the strike zone. Werth couldn't drive in a run. Danny Espinosa couldn't make contact. Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche couldn't make routine plays. Craig Stammen couldn't avoid plunking opposing batters.

Yet in spite of themselves, the Nationals trailed most of the afternoon by only one run, 2-1, with those two runs scoring entirely as a result of Gonzalez's extreme wildness.

There were plenty of opportunities where the deficit could have grown. Gonzalez himself managed to keep the damage to a relative minimum, escaping his 37-pitch nightmare of a second inning only allowing those two runs.

"I think that was a big positive," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "Instead of down, say, 5-1, we're down 2-1. We're still in the ballgame. That was a big, big job by Gio."

Which set the stage for some really big jobs performed by a Nationals bullpen that combined to throw four scoreless innings and strand five Cardinals in scoring position.

No one, of course, performed better than Ryan Mattheus, who entered facing the ultimate jam -- bases loaded, nobody out -- and somehow managed to record three outs on all of two pitches. The right-hander walked off the mound with a roar, one of several displays of emotion from Nationals players during the final, frenzied innings of this game.

"Yeah, there was definitely some emotion," Mattheus said. "That's the biggest game I've been in. Those are the biggest three outs and the two biggest pitches I've ever made. So being down one run, I wanted to pump the team up and hopefully get some momentum back in our direction."

The pendulum immediately swung back in the Nationals' favor. Their game-winning rally began with a break: shortstop Pete Kozma taking a bad hop grounder off his face (reminiscent of the Yankees' Tony Kubek late in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series) to allow Michael Morse to reach first base.

Ian Desmond, one of the few young Nationals who looked composed from the first pitch, followed with his third single of the day, but he and Morse were able to advance only one base a piece after Espinosa's surprising sacrifice bunt and Suzuki's strikeout.

With two outs now, the tying run on third and the winning run on second, Johnson sent his best pinch-hitter to the plate: Chad Tracy. The 69-year-old skipper, though, knew Tracy would never actually get into the batter's box. Sure enough, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny signaled for his bullpen, summoning his lone left-hander (Marc Rzepczynski) to face Tracy.

Johnson immediately countered, pulling Tracy back and sending to the plate 25-year-old rookie Tyler Moore, whose lack of experience is overshadowed by his ability to hit the baseball like a true pro.

"I'd rather have the veteran player in that situation than a rookie," Johnson said. "But rookies have been doing a heck of a job, and Moore has got some big hits for us, as he did tonight."

That he did. After flailing at a 2-1 pitch way out of the zone, Moore composed himself and dumped the biggest hit of his life into shallow right field. Morse and Desmond came around to score, Moore celebrated as he advanced to second base and the Nationals dugout went bezerk.

"To battle with two strikes and throw one out there in a huge situation, he picked us up," LaRoche said. "A bunch of us had opportunities today to drive some runs in and it didn't happen, so he saved all of us."

That, though, is what great teams do. That's what successful teams in October do.

Sometimes the star players deliver in the biggest spots. Sometimes it's a 28-year-old middle reliever and a 25-year-old rookie off the bench.

"That's playoff baseball," said Drew Storen, who earned the save with a 1-2-3 ninth. "Nothing goes to plan in the playoffs. The good teams are the ones that can handle it and really grind it out and get the victory. That's what we expect. We don't expect it to go by the book."

No, very little about this game went by the book. And it's entirely possible very little about the rest of this playoff run will, either.

That's just the way this works. In the regular season, a 3-2 game is completed in less than three hours and features maybe one or two moments of mild pressure. In the postseason, it takes a full 3 hours and 40 minutes, a never-ending stream of big and bigger moments where it feels like everything is on the line.

And when it's all over, everybody heads back to their team hotel, tries to get their blood pressure back to normal levels, tries to get something resembling a good night's sleep ... and comes right back to the park the next day ready for another date with the meat grinder.

Game 1 is in the books. The Nationals and their fans could experience this 18 more times before the season ends.

Hope everyone packed their beta-blockers.

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This year's Nationals roster is stacked with glorious facial hair

This year's Nationals roster is stacked with glorious facial hair

The following is a list of things the 2017 Washington Nationals appear to have: A talented outfield led by Bryce Harper and Adam Eaton. A rising superstar at shortstop in Trea Turner. A possibly major hole at closer.

The following is a list of things the 2017 Washington Nationals appear to not have: Razors. Shaving cream. A desire to groom their faces.

A fun tradition at each team's spring training is the annual photo day, because photo day forces professional athletes to pose in front of cameras like they're being featured in the poster of an upcoming blockbuster movie. And after poring through the snapshots from the Nationals' photo day, a single trend emerged.

This year's team is a hairy bunch.

Among that bunch are the usual suspects, such as Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth:

But there are some surprises, most notably of which is Stephen Strasburg. The right-hander tends to keep his mug 100-percent clean-shaven, but for now, at least, he's allowed his face to become quite fertile:

Then there's newcomer Adam Lind, who has a goatee that Duke's Blue Devil logo would be forced to respect:

Shawn Kelley, meanwhile, who's pictured below, has a beard that looks like...

...Derek Norris' beard, before Derek Norris' beard hit puberty and grew up to be the strong, mature beard it is today:

There are scraggly ones, such as Daniel Murphy's:

And fuller, more complete ones, like Eaton's (full marks, by the way, for the trade acquisition's ability to seamlessly connect 'stache to beard):

The most wild photo of all, however, was this one of Turner. Is this the Nats stud, or a picture of Leonard DiCaprio from a scene in The Revenant? Hard to tell with all that stubble the infielder's cultivating:

One potential positive of this team-wide movement: If Turner and his teammates keep what they're growing down in Florida going throughout the season, their faces will be plenty warm by the time playoff baseball comes around. 

RELATED: HARPER GOES YARD IN FIRST AT-BAT OF THE SPRING

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Nationals' Bryce Harper mashes monster homer on second pitch of spring training

Nationals' Bryce Harper mashes monster homer on second pitch of spring training

The Nationals played their first game of spring training today against the Mets. They won, but that's not nearly the biggest story of the day. It was Bryce Harper's first at-bat that stole the show. 

On just the second pitch he saw of spring training, from lefty Sean Gilmartin, Harper mashed a ginormous home run to right center field. MLB.com shared video of the bomb. 

According to Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post, Harper smacked the ball at least 400 feet. In his second at-bat, he hit a line-drive single on the first pitch. 

Let's just say it was an exciting start to the year for Harper, who won the 2015 NL MVP only to endure a let-down last season. As Castillo points out, the slugger hit .226 against left-handed pitchers in 2016. 

Harper enters spring training at 230 pounds, up 15 pounds of muscle from last year. 

“I just felt going into the offseason you want to get as strong as you can, try to maintain your weight the best you can and just do everything the right way,” he told the Post. 

MORE NATIONALS: Baker thinks DC sports teams can win a championship this year