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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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Nationals, without their big guns, fall to Mets

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Nationals, without their big guns, fall to Mets

NEW YORK -- Travis d'Arnaud hit two home runs and the New York Mets ended a three-game skid, rallying past a watered-down lineup of Washington Nationals 7-6 on Friday night.

Washington manager Dusty Baker said he needed to "give my big boys much needed rest" with the playoffs nearing, and not a single regular started for the NL East champions. Star Daniel Murphy pinch hit in the eighth and flied out.

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The Nationals begin the Division Series in exactly two weeks. If the current standings hold, they would host the World Series champion Chicago Cubs to open the best-of-five matchup.

Adam Lind hit a three-run homer for Washington. It was the Nationals' 203rd home run this season, matching the franchise record dating to 1969 when they were the Montreal Expos.

Howie Kendrick had an RBI double and prized prospect Victor Robles lined a two-run triple in the fifth that put Washington ahead 6-1.

Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley exited in the eighth inning because of an apparent injury. He' has struggled this season and missed more than two months because of back problems.

Nori Aoki had three hits for the Mets, including a go-ahead double in the sixth inning off Joe Blanton (2-4).

Chasen Bradford (2-0) pitched a scoreless inning for the win.

Jeurys Familia, the Mets' third pitcher in the ninth inning, came on to strike out Robles with runners on first and third for his fourth save -- his first since May 5. Familia, who missed three months after surgery to repair a blood clot, entered as part of a double switch, with Kevin Plawecki taking over at catcher for d'Arnaud.

D'Arnaud hit a solo homer in the second and connected for a tying, three-run drive in the fifth that finished starter Edwin Jackson. That gave d'Arnaud a career-best 15 homers and marked his second multihomer game, the other coming in April against Washington.

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Mets starter Robert Gsellman allowed six runs in five innings. He moved up a day to pitch in place of ace Jacob deGrom, who was moved back in the rotation until Sunday because of a stomach illness this week.

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Cubs, Brewers, or Cardinals: potential postseason opponents for the Washington Nationals

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Cubs, Brewers, or Cardinals: potential postseason opponents for the Washington Nationals

The regular season is winding down and there is no drama in the nation’s capital.

With a stranglehold on the National League East for the entire season, the Washington Nationals were the first team in baseball to earn a playoff spot and their division. Since June, the Nationals’ lead has been hovering around 20 games. Their record against the division is 44-26 with three NL East series forthcoming.

Beyond that, positioning has not been a factor in the National League either. It was a near forgone conclusion that the Nationals were going to earn the No. 2 seed in the NL side of the postseason. There was a slight chance last week that Washington could pass the Los Angeles Dodgers with them losing 16 of 17 games. Alas, the Dodgers took two out of three in their series, solidifying their No. 1 seed hopes.

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Dusty Baker then basically threw in the towel for that race. He spread out his rotation to six pitchers and gave his players consistent rest. Focusing on the postseason more than the playoff race, he does not appear to care about their positioning.

With that, the Nationals are all but guaranteed to finish second behind the Dodgers. Floating between four and six games back, there is no sense of urgency.

There is no worry about the team in third either. The Chicago Cubs, as of September 22, sit seven games behind the Nationals and are in the thick of a Divisional race.

Either way, even if the Nationals were to collapse and the winner of the National League Central was to rocket up to second, the Nationals will play against whoever wins the division in the No. 2 vs. No. 3 match-up.

The Central has actually been the Nationals Achilles heel this year. They finished with a 17-13 record vs. NL Central teams. It is not the whole division the Nationals have to worry about though, just the one that comes out.

Entering Friday’s action the Cubs are well on their way to winning the division, according to fangraphs.com. Below are the current odds to win the division:

Chicago Cubs                     97.8%
Milwaukee Brewers          0.9%
St. Louis Cardinals            1.3%

This is slightly misleading though, because the Central could completely flip before the postseason. The lead is 4.5 over the Milwaukee Brewers and 5.0 over the St. Louis Cardinals. However of their final 10 games, three are against the Brewers, four against the Cardinals, all seven on the road.

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In the five-game NLDS the Nationals will face one of these teams. Even if it is the defending World Series Champions, you have to like the Nationals’ odds.

CHICAGO CUBS PREVIEW

Current record: 85-67
2017 Record vs. Washington: 2-4
Last head-to-head postseason series: Never
Starting pitchers: Jon Lester (11-8), Jake Arrieta (14-9), John Lackey (11-11), Kyle Hendricks (7-5), Jose Quintana (6-3)
Top position players: Kris Bryant (.292 BA, 28 HRs, 69 RBIs), Anthony Rizzo (.278 BA, 32 HRs, 107 RBIs)

If these two teams were to meet up, it would be easily the best starting pitching match-up in the National League. Likely the Cubs would only go to four guys, maybe three if they get desperate. With Jake Arrieta on the mind, that would be a dicey move to start the postseason. They have not played to the level that the 2016 did a year ago, but a majority of the position players are still in place and can still put together a run.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS PREVIEW

Current record: 81-72
2017 Record vs. Washington: 3-4
Last head-to-head postseason series: Never
Starting pitchers: Zach Davies (17-9), Chase Anderson (11-3), Brandon Woodruff (2-2), Brent Suter (3-2)
Top position players: Domingo Santana (.281 BA, 28 HRs, 80 RBIs), Travis Shaw (.274 BA, 30 HRs, 96 RBIs)

As one of the hottest teams in the first half of the season, the Brewers are only relying on their early success. Their team has quickly cooled off and their number two starter Jimmy Nelson is out the remainder of the season. The rest of the roster is shaky at best as they are trying to stay relevant in the postseason chase. If the Nationals are fully prepared for the playoffs there should be no worries if Milwaukee represents the Central.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS PREVIEW

Current record: 80-72
2017 Record vs. Washington: 3-3
Last head-to-head postseason series: 2012; Cardinals won 3-2 in NLDS
Starting pitchers: Adam Wainwright (12-5), Carlos Martinez (12-11), Lance Lynn (11-7), Michael Wacha (12-8), Luke Weaver (7-1),
Top position players: Yadier Molina (.276 BA, 18 HRs, 82 RBIs), Tommy Pham (.311 BA, 21 HRs, 168 RBIs)

With both the Brewers and Cubs you know what you are getting, with the Cardinals it could be anything. The starting pitchers have a history of success, just not in 2017. Also how Wainwright comes back will be a huge factor in how the Central race will play out and how their odds in the postseason increase. With a mix of a young and aging line-up, the Cardinals can both win with the long ball and piece runs together by playing small ball. St. Louis is easily the most interesting team of the three and could be the scariest if the Wainwright comes back at 100%.

Both the Brewers and the Cardinals have to rely on each other to win the NL Central. They cannot do it on their individual series's alone.