Big task in the Cards for Nats postseason debut

Cy Young-favorite Gio Gonzalez faces the biggest start of his career Sunday in game one of the NLDS. (Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images)

There is just one more day of waiting, one more day of anticipation, one more day of worrying, before the Washington Nationals take to the field for the first postseason game the franchise has seen since 1994, and the first in D.C. since 1933. We’ve all known for a while the day was coming, but more surprising is the fact that they will live up against the Cardinals for the NLDS.

Enough has been written about the bizarre way the new postseason was lined up and, that after winning their first divisional title since relocation and having the best record in baseball, they now have to go to Busch Stadium for the first two games of their series with the Cardinals, who won 10 fewer games than Davey Johnson’s outfit. So, instead, let’s look at what the keys to the series might be for the Nationals if they are to progress to the NLCS.

Most of the stats from the regular season seem to point to a Nationals victory. They won the season series 4-3, and despite struggling in the last road series of the regular season, scored more runs in the process. If they are going to overcome the Cardinals, they’ll have to deal with one of the best offenses in the National League, so it’s probably just as well Washington has one of the best defenses, even if they struggled when the two sides met last weekend.

The most important aspect for the Nationals, as always, is their starting pitching. We’ve known before the start of spring training that Stephen Strasburg wouldn’t make an appearance in October, so it falls to the rest of the rotation to get the job done. Likely Cy Young winner Gio Gonzalez has won more games than anyone in MLB this year, and recorded his first career complete game shutout against the Cardinals in August. Jordan Zimmermann faced the Cardinals twice in the last month of the season, combining for only 10 innings, giving up 11 runs on 15 hits. He’ll have to be much sharper in the second game of the series. Edwin Jackson is the likely starter for the first postseason game at Nationals Park, and he’ll need to improve on his last road start of the season in Busch Stadium, where he gave up nine runs off eight hits in just 1.1 innings. Nats fan will be hoping his performance is more like his most recent, where he beat the Phillies.

Then there is the bullpen. Tyler Clippard picked up the slack when Drew Storen got injured earlier in the year, recording 32 saves with a WHIP of 1.1 and a K/9 rate of over 10. That’s all changed in the last month, though, where he has a 0-3 record to go with his ERA of 8.74 and WHIP of nearly two, although he is still striking out plenty of batters. Storen appears to be back to his best over the same period, and his ERA of 0.69 and WHIP of 0.692 testament to that. If Clippard can’t make it through the eighth inning and give Storen the lead, it won’t matter how good Storen’s pitching.

So, if they are going to struggle to keep a lid on the Cardinals offense, they better score a lot of runs. The bats have woken up in the last month of the season, with five of the everyday line-up hitting over .284, including Bryce Harper, who had an OBP of .398 during that time, and Adam LaRoche, who hit nine of the team’s 49 homers in September. Both players have also played well against the Cardinals this season, combining for a batting average of .392 in the seven games of the regular season, knocking in 13 runs in the process. If they can carry big bats in this series, then the Nats have got every chance.

The Nationals also hope their defense doesn’t give the Cardinals as much help as the Braves did on Friday in the Wild Card Game, while the Nationals will hope the umpires don’t make the same big mistakes that saw Turner Field become a garbage dump for a short while.

All in all, it’s going to be a great series, one I think could go to the fifth game. And if this is what the postseason is all about, then I hope the Nationals will be back again and again.

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