ST. LOUIS — The 2012 season represented uncharted territory for the Washington Nationals, as the vast majority of players had never experienced the pressure of pennant races or the joy of first-place finishes. But venturing out this far, with baseball’s best record and the NL East division title already in tow, is nothing like navigating the postseason’s deep waters.
The previous 162 games provided no indication of how Washington would respond in the National League Division Series. No matter how much Davey Johnson and his players try to downplay their lack of seasoning — the team’s, not the 69-year-old manager’s — playoff baseball is just different.
Here, every pitch and subsequent action is magnified, with only three guaranteed games left to be played. Across the field in the home team’s dugout are the battle-tested St. Louis Cardinals, winners of two of the past six World Series titles. They don’t have to wonder what it’s like to need a big out or a clutch hit when each defeat feels like a week’s worth.
But after Sunday, the Nats don’t have to wonder, either. They treated the NLDS opener like a midsummer game in Houston or Pittsburgh, just another chance to keep proving themselves. The evidence on this occasion was a 3-2 victory, courtesy of rookie Tyler Moore’s pinch-hit single in the eighth inning.
Earlier that day, Johnson joked about holding a big pregame gathering: “If I had a meeting, they would think I’m panicking or something. It’s not my first rodeo.”
He mentioned how the Nats pitch well, usually hit well and field well. Two out of three normally don’t get the job done, but the Nats generated just enough offense Monday, even though Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright stymied them with 10 strikeouts in 5⅔ innings and yielded just six hits.
Maybe it was a case of nervousness on the postseason stage. Perhaps it was the five-day layoff since the Nats’ last meaningful game. It could have been the crisp 54 degrees as Wainwright threw his first pitch.
I might nominate inexperience as the culprit, except for Moore’s showing. You can’t put any player — rookie or not — in a more tense situation. Down by one run, with two out and two men on, Moore stroked a soft fly ball into right field, creating the game’s final margin. So much for having been here and done it before, as evidenced by Jayson Werth: The Nats’ most-grizzled playoff vet, with 10 postseason series and a World Series title on his resume, twice ended innings to leave the bases loaded.
Johnson’s pregame proclamation about the NLDS — “this is no different” — might not be true. But the only thing that matters is making his players believe it. And there was no sign of tightness as the shadows grew and the score remained stuck on 2-1 in favor of the Cardinals, from the second inning through two-thirds of the eighth.
Starter Gio Gonzalez scuffled through the ugliest one-hitter over five innings that you would ever want to see. Okay, the top five hitters in the lineup went 3 for 23 with a walk. Wonderful. Corner infielders Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman each committed an error. Fine.
Nobody panicked. The Nats still got just enough pitching and defense to make three runs stand up. Johnson’s cool confidence obviously has rubbed off on his players, which could be the great equalizer to overcome the green roster. That, plus the abundance of experience the manager brings could serve as a counterweight, along with savvy hunches like pulling back Chad Tracy to pinch hit with Moore instead.
“I’d rather have the veteran player in that situation than a rookie,” Johnson said after his move worked perfectly. “But rookies have been having success all year. They have been doing a heck of a job, and Moore has got some hits for us.”
It takes nerve to send a rookie to the plate when you’re facing, perhaps, your last best chance to take the lead.
But Johnson has displayed that type of belief in every member of his roster all season long.
He has been Ian Desmond’s biggest and most-vocal supporter; the young shortstop went 3 for 4 in Game 1.