- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Nationals‘ second batter of the eighth inning Sunday represented this stage of the season.

“Now hitting, Spencer Kieboom.”

Kieboom spent most of the season playing catcher for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators. He was called up when Wilson Ramos was injured and lost for the remainder of the season. His first career major league at-bat came as the sun faded Sunday in the final game of the regular season. He walked.

The Washington Nationals finished the 162-game grind with an 10-7 win against the still-despondent Miami Marlins. All that matters now is Friday, when a spine-tingling pitching matchup between Cy Young candidate, and one-time winner, Max Scherzer and three-time winner Clayton Kershaw will take place to open the National League Division Series at Nationals Park.

Washington has been working for a week knowing that a playoff spot was secure. For half the season, it was assumed. The Nationals found out Saturday night the games would start at home, where Washington is a potent 50-31. Los Angeles has floundered on the road. It went just 38-43 away from the hills of Los Angeles. No other National League postseason participant was worse on the road.

The Nationals will try to drag themselves past the first round of the playoffs
for the third time in the last five seasons. The last two visits still live within the negative lore of the franchise since its arrival in the District in 2005. Moments like a four-run ninth inning in the deciding game in 2012 against the St. Louis Cardinals. The extraction of Jordan Zimmermann in the ninth inning of Game 2 in 2014. For Nationals fans, those memories are locked away in a dark and distinct place.

This team will attempt to change that familiar sourness associated with past appearances. It won 95 games. It was in first place for 157 days. Scherzer has pitched in the playoffs. Daniel Murphy has dominated the playoffs. This will be the eighth time Jayson Werth will play in the postseason.

“Overall, I’d call [the season] a success, to this point,” Werth said. “But once you get in, all bets are off. You’ve just got to give yourself a chance.”

The Nationals are hampered by injuries. General manager Mike Rizzo said right-handed pitcher Stephen Strasburg is “unlikely” to pitch in the NLDS (and the Nationals refuse to announce their rotation to this point). He could be out the entire postseason. Ramos is already out. Daniel Murphy (strained buttock) took his first in-game swing since Sept. 20 when he was popped into the lineup as a pinch-hitter Sunday. He flew out to right field and said afterward he did not want to predict how he would feel by Friday. Internally, the Nationals are sweeping aside the wayward state of those big names.

“We have to win,” Scherzer said. “That’s our only goal. You can’t make excuses. Look, the Dodgers have dealt with injuries, every team has dealt with injuries. That’s sports. Name me a team that doesn’t deal with injuries. Every team does. It’s reality.

“Would I love to have those guys healthy and strapped up? Yes. But, at the same time, you got to go no matter what. You’ve got to believe we’re going to be able to get it done. The Dodgers have a great team. Absolutely respect everything they do. From the mound to the box to the defense, everything they do, but I believe that we can beat them.”

That was difficult during the regular season. Los Angeles won five of six, though only outscored Washington 26-21 in those games.

The Nationals will take a break Monday. Tuesday through Thursday, they will come to Nationals Park to workout and try to expedite healing. Manager Dusty Baker said the Nationals will work infield practice, receive treatment, take swings on the field. The lull between the end of the season and start of the playoffs is a final line to walk before the postseason.

“I’m not going to work them to death, but you certainly don’t want them to rust in the meantime,” Baker said.

Friday, the lights come and the fervor strikes.

“Now the fun begins,” Scherzer said.

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