So now they know.
A season’s worth of dominance, often as the best team in the major leagues, the Washington Nationals controlled their future for almost the entire year. Until they sealed the No. 1 overall seed in the National League and the best record in baseball. Then, all they could do was wait.
That wait ended Friday night just after 8:30 p.m. when the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Atlanta Braves, 6-3, and the Nationals set their flight plan for Saturday afternoon back to St. Louis.
The first playoff series in Nationals history will pit them against the reigning World Series champions.
The Cardinals are a tough team, no doubt, and are well-versed the science of elimination games. The Nationals will have their hands full if they have designs on the National League Championship Series, though that could be said for every team when it gets into the playoffs.
“They’re a great team,” Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday said of the Nationals on the TBS broadcast. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us, but it’ll be exciting.”
Anyway, there are definitely pros and cons for the Nationals in a series with the Cardinals. So here’s a look at a few of them.
Pro: The Nationals took the season series from the Cardinals, 4-3, including taking three out of four from St. Louis at Nationals Park at the beginning of September. They’ve hit Adam Wainwright hard and they’ve chased Jaime Garcia. Even Kyle Lohse hasn’t seemed impenetrable to them, and after tagging him for eight runs (five earned) in their first meeting, they hit him hard in the first inning last weekend with four runs coming home on Michael Morse’s now well-known invisible grand slam.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported earlier this week that the Cardinals will likely go with a rotation of Wainwright, Garcia, Chris Carpenter and then Lohse, who started the Wild Card game, in the Division Series. The Nationals shouldn’t be overly intimidated by any of them.
Con: The Cardinals hit the Nationals pretty hard, too. Jordan Zimmermann gave up a career-high eight earned runs on Sept. 1 to them, Edwin Jackson was tagged for nine (eight earned) in 1 1/3 last weekend and Ross Detwiler closed out the Nationals’ season series against the Cardinals by allowing seven (three earned) in 2 1/3 on Sunday.
In the seven games they’ve played, the Nationals have outscored the Cardinals by just three runs and they’ve allowed 5.7 per game — the most they allowed any opponent this season.
Pro: The Nationals will hold the edge in the battle of Game 1 starters. The only time Gio Gonzalez faced the Cardinals this season he threw a shutout. Gonzalez allowed just five hits that day and struck out eight. He also is a lefty who’s actually been tougher on right-handers this season than left-handers.
The Cardinals and their righty-heavy lineup fared much better against left-handers this season, losing only 17 games to lefties out of the 48 they played this season. In contrast, they were 57-57 against right-handed pitching. But Gonzalez could present one of the rare exceptions to those numbers.
Con: The Cardinals are much better against left-handers, meaning that the Nationals will likely throw Edwin Jackson in Game 3 after Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. The good news here is that Jackson turned in a solid performance in his final start of the regular season. The bad news for the Nationals is that his September ERA was untenable (6.54) and the Cardinals seemed to have no trouble hitting him just a week ago.
Pro: The Nationals have had two days to rest and regroup as they awaited their opponent. They’ll fly to St. Louis Saturday at noon and have a team workout before they prepare for their 3:07 p.m. (ET) start on Sunday. They’ve been afforded the time to set their pitching up and rest some of their ailing players while the Cardinals have been playing one game for their lives almost all the way to the end, including Friday night. They’ve burned Lohse in the Wild Card game and won’t use him until likely Game 4.
Cons: Gonzalez and Zimmermann will be working on several days of extra rest. Gonzalez last pitched on Sept. 27 and will be pitching on eight days of rest when he takes the mound on Sunday. Both pitchers were planning to throw a bullpen session on Thursday and/or Friday. The Cardinals are also riding an awful lot of emotion and momentum after a wild one-game playoff in Atlanta Friday night. Between the protested infield fly call, the debris being thrown on the field by the fans and, ultimately, their win that put them into the NLDS. The Cardinals also hold the experience card heavily over the Nationals.