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Nationals-Cardinals NLDS: Postseason experience not on Nats’ side

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ST. LOUIS — Bryce Harper stood reluctantly at his locker before a battery of cameras and microphones, doing his best to try and convince the world – and perhaps himself – that the biggest game of his life was no big deal.

"I think you guys are more nervous than we are," Harper said to the media assembled the day before Game 1 of the National League Division Series. "It's just another game, just another series. I'm excited, but I'm just going to look at it like it's another game and another place that we play and another team that we play. I guess when you step in the box it's going to be a lot different with the crowd and everything, but you can't look at it that way."

A few minutes later, dressing alone on the other side of the Nationals' clubhouse, Mark DeRosa begged to differ.

"It's not," just another game, he said. "It's not."

Whatever his public stance, Harper has no idea exactly how he'll react to seeing his first delivery from Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright on Sunday afternoon. Sure, the Nationals visited this same stadium and faced this same pitcher last weekend, but everything else that awaits them Sunday will be different.

Entering the Division Series opener, only four of the 25 players on the Nationals' active roster have playoff experience. It will be up to Jayson Werth, Edwin Jackson, Adam LaRoche and Michael Gonzalez – along with the inactive DeRosa – to try and explain something nearly everyone in the opposing dugout will already have experienced.

A whopping 19 of the players on the Cardinals' active roster have appeared in the postseason, most of them last season as St. Louis took a wild-card berth and ran with it all the way to victory over the Texas Rangers in Game 7 of the World Series.

Will having lived through that give the Cardinals an edge in this series? Lance Berkman thinks it already has made a difference for St. Louis.

"I think it definitely is an advantage; I think you saw that played out [Friday] night," he said of the Cardinals' wild-card win in Atlanta. "I think the Braves played a little nervous and we didn't and that was the difference in the game."

Infield-fly hubbub aside, it was three Atlanta errors that cost the Braves Friday night. Whether they could be attributed to nerves is debatable – particularly in the case of Chipper Jones' crucial errant throw – but there's no denying the Cardinals are more familiar with that particular feel of postseason baseball than most. This is the third time in four years they've made it at least this far.

"I feel like you'll be more comfortable in those situations when you're faced with it over and over again," said Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals' Game 1 starter. "And last year's experience, playing the last month of the season like every day was your last, and going through that postseason where you're the underdog every time, which we always are and which we are again, it gives you an edge. It gives you a sense of being comfortable in tight spots, I really do think that."

The Cardinals survived four win-or-go-home games in last year's playoffs, most notably rallying from a 7-4 deficit in the eighth and a 9-7 hole in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the World Series to win and force a Game 7. Having a memory that fresh to summon in times of trouble can't help but bolster a team's confidence, particularly when nearly everyone involved remains on the roster

"I don't think you can say enough about what those guys went through in 2011, what they overcame, how much they were the underdog and how they were ruled out and all those things that brought them together which defines the character of a team, and ultimately defines character of people," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. "All of those are benefits that they have earned and they worked their way through, and this team is doing the same thing this year."

You have to start somewhere, though, and Sunday will be it for most of the Nationals. Jackson, who will pitch Game 3 on Wednesday in D.C., started four games in the playoffs for the Cardinals last year. He said he felt about the same going into that stretch as he did in his playoff debut in 2008 as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays.

"I would say it's more anxiety than nervousness," he said. "You're anxious, you're ready to go. But once you get that out of your system, it's like, 'OK, here we go.'"

For the Nationals who haven't been there before, be they the 19-year-old Harper or the long-suffering Ryan Zimmerman, finally will get their chance to go Sunday. DeRosa, a .358 hitter in 22 career postseason games, will not be among the group on the field. But he'll be making the rounds in the clubhouse and the dugout, and he expects his teammates to learn a little something this week.

"The thing I'll tell these guys is, you're really going to find out who you are," DeRosa said. "I always felt that. You really find out, can you handle the big stage or does it have a tendency to get too bright for you? That's the thing I'll try and harp on.

"There's going to be moments where this crowd is going absolutely crazy and intense and you have to find a way to want that next ball hit to you or want to be the next guy coming to the plate. I think we've got guys on our team just like that, so I look forward to watching these guys play."

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