The Washington Times - September 30, 2012, 01:47PM

ST. LOUIS — It could’ve been late October. A cool night, a tense game, a lead that was chipped away at, blown and regained. A game started by one of each team’s best pitchers, followed by their bullpen aces, decided on a rocket double in extra innings.

It was Saturday night. Game No. 158 in the Washington Nationals’ season. The game that brought them to the brink of clinching. It wasn’t a playoff game. But it felt like it.

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“This last week, we havent’ had a game (that was easy),” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “People were saying that they weren’t sure if it was better or worse for us to play these games when we needed some wins, but to be playing pretty much do-or-die baseball for the last week or so is obviously going to get us ready.”

The Nationals are not rich in playoff experience. They don’t have a veteran team flush with guys who’ve spent more Octobers under baseball’s brightest lights than home on their couches watching.

But they have played 158 games this season, most of them as the best team in baseball, and they know just how hard it’s been to get to this point: the brink of clinching a division championship.

And they’re getting valuable experience while they do it.

“To have these kind of games is kind of preparing us,” Zimmerman said. “Not a lot of us really know what to expect, but to play games like (Saturday’s), instead of maybe clinching and having a few games off, I think it can be positive. It can be positive both ways.”

The Nationals have been going hard in this last stretch. With very few exceptions, manager Davey Johnson has run out the same eight position players for everyday at least the last two weeks. Catcher Kurt Suzuki was in the lineup Sunday morning for his ninth straight game — and a day game after a night game. 

“The last couple weeks, I ain’t gonna lie, it’s tough games,” Suzuki said.

But they’re learning as they go.

Of their everyday players only Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche have ever suited up for a postseason game. In the bullpen, only Michael Gonzalez has been there.

“Personally, for me, (games like Saturday) are still part of the learning experience,” said closer Drew Storen, who blew his first save of the season, though he coaxed two hard ground balls. “Getting back in the grind of it, that’s what I learn from. We get the victory, so it’s a great learning experience for me.”

In that case, a reporter asked Storen, are you ready for more like this? 

“Oh yeah,” he said. “My blood pressure, maybe not so much. By my heart is, that’s for sure.”