(Sports Network) - The District of Columbia hasn't seen a World Series title
since Walter Johnson and the Senators defeated the New York Giants in 1924.
The Washington Nationals hope to change that, as the franchise returns to the
postseason for the first time since 1981 on Sunday when they play Game 1 of
the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch
Of course, the last time this organization was in the playoffs it was known as
the Montreal Expos. The Nationals, though, enter this year's playoffs as the
top seed in the National League after going 98-64 to win their first division
title in 31 years.
Although the Nats finished 10 games better than the Cardinals, given the
new format, they will play the first two games of this best-of-five set
on the road, then return for the final three at Nationals Park, marking D.C.'s
first taste of playoff baseball since 1933.
Nationals brass took some heat when they shut down ace Stephen Strasburg in
early September after he had reached his innings limit following his return
from Tommy John surgery. Strasburg had gone 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and struck
out 197 batters in 159 1/3 innings.
"Stephen's a huge part of this. We're not here without Stephen," general
manager Mike Rizzo said. "He's the No. 1 on the team with the best record in
baseball and the National League East champs. So he's a huge part of this
thing that's going on here, and will be for a long time to come."
Even without Strasburg, though, the Nats are fine in the pitching department,
as left- hander Gio Gonzalez won 21 games and struck out 201 batters and will
start Game 1. Righty Jordan Zimmerman also had a fine season, going 12-8,
after he was shut down last year because of an innings limit following elbow
Both had better ERAs (2.89 and 2.94) than Strasburg (3.16) this season.
Gonzalez last pitched on Sept. 27 against the Phillies. He was scheduled to
pitch this past Tuesday against Philadelphia, but after winning the NL East
title the previous day, manager Davey Johnson decided to rest Gonzalez so he
could be ready for the postseason.
"This is a learning curve for me, so I need to know how to prepare myself for
something like this, Gonzalez said. "Someway, somehow, I'll find it and try to
figure it out."
While phenom Bryce Harper gets most of the attention offensively, first
baseman Adam LaRoche matched a career high with 100 RBI and he and the rest of
the infield - Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa - combined for
Harper, though, burst on the scene for the Nationals on April 28 and never
looked back, as he earned an All-Star berth, hit .270 with 22 home runs, drove
in 59 runs and scored 98. He also stole 18 bases.
And oh yea, he's still two weeks away from turning 20.
"It's not how old I am. It's how I treat him every day," Johnson said. "And he
doesn't want any special treatment. He wants to be treated just like everybody
From Sept. 1 through the end of the regular season, the left-handed-hitting
Harper led all NL players in runs (27), and ranked in the top eight in the
league in slugging percentage (third, .643), batting average (tied for fifth,
.330) and on-base percentage (eighth, .400).
"He's pretty much got, in his mind, a bulletproof shield around him at all
times," LaRoche said. "We see stuff every two or three days from him that's
just like, `Wow. I haven't seen that in a long time.'"
Righty Tyler Clippard did an admirable job as the team's closer this season,
as Drew Storen, who saved 43 games last year, recovered from elbow surgery.
But, Clippard pitched to a 5.60 ERA in the second half of the season, making
the decision easier for Johnson to hand the ninth-inning reins back to Storen.
"I feel physically better than I ever have before," Storen said."I feel like
my stuff is better than it was last year. When you go in and have those
operations, you never really know how its going to turn out. Fortunately for
me, I got taken care of really well."
Sean Burnett is the Nats' top lefty setup man (4.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate
and Craig Stammen is a reliable innings-eater.
While the Nationals are the prohibitive favorite in the National League, the
Cardinals are perfectly fine with their role as underdogs.
St. Louis, of course, overcame a 9 1/2-game deficit last season to nab the NL
wild card on the season's final day and parlayed that into the team's 11th
World Series title.
The Cardinals were again heavy underdogs in Friday's one-game wild card
playoff with the Atlanta Braves, but advanced with a 6-3 win with a little
help from a questionable call.
With the Cards holding the three-run lead, Freddie Freeman walked to start the
bottom of the eighth for Atlanta and David Ross lined a one-out single to
Andrelton Simmons then lofted a pop up that fell in between shortstop Pete
Kozma and Matt Holliday. Left field umpire Sam Holbrook inexplicably called a
late infield fly, resulting in fans littering the field with debris.
From that point on, the Braves played the game under protest, which was
Following an extended delay, Jason Motte entered from the bullpen and struck
out Michael Bourn after walking a pinch-hitting McCann to load the bases.
Chipper Jones temporarily prolonged his career and the Braves' season by
reaching on a broken-bat infield single with two outs. He was safe when second
baseman Daniel Descalso's throw pulled Craig's foot off the bag. Freeman
followed with a ground-rule double, but Dan Uggla grounded out to end the
Kyle Lohse (1-0) scattered six hits over 5 2/3 innings to pick up the first
postseason win of his career.
Allen Craig continued his postseason prowess and ignited a three-run fourth
inning with an RBI double, while Holliday smashed a solo homer.
It was a year of adjustments for the Cardinals, who went into this season with
a new manager in Mike Matheny following the retirement of Tony La Russa, and
without three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols, who bolted to the Los Angeles Angels
of Anaheim as a free agent.
St. Louis did not skip a beat, winning just two games less than last season,
and still finished 88-74. Although, it wasn't quite the furious finish they
needed last year, the Cardinals still won 12 of their final 16 games, but did
not secure the second wild card spot until the second to last day of the
Carlos Beltran was brought into replace Pujols and actually put up about the
same numbers, as he hit .269 with 32 home runs and 97 RBI. But, catcher Yadier
Molina really shined and should finish among the leaders in MVP voting.
Already an all-world defender, Molina excelled at the plate, batting .315 with
22 home runs and 76 RBI.
The biggest reason the Cards might be in the playoffs could be Kozma, who
filled in for injured Rafael Furcal and started the final 16 games for the
team. Ten of his 22 hits were for extra bases, and he delivered an RBI in
seven of the team's last 11 games.
"You always wonder how a kid's going to perform when you put him on a big
stage," Matheny said. "And we put him on as big a stage as there
was in the game [in September], and he rose to the challenge. I don't know, to
be honest with you, what we would have done [without him]. We would have kept
musical chairing it for a while with a couple of other players until we found
somebody to take control. But, fortunately, Pete Kozma stepped up, took charge
of the position."
St. Louis won't be hurt too bad with having Lohse throw the wild card game, as
it still has former Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter and former 20-game
winner Adam Wainwright to fall back on, as well as Lance Lynn, who was an 18-
game winner this season.
Unlike last year's bullpen situation under La Russa, the roles are a little
more defined. One role that is the same, though, is the closer Motte, who
may not look as impressive as some of the other top-notch closers in the
league, but is just as reliable picked up every save for the Cardinals this
Right-hander Mitchell Boggs is his main setup man. Righty Edward Mujica, who
posted a 1.03 ERA since coming from Florida, and lefty Marc Rzepczynski also
serve as the bridge.
St. Louis took two of three from the Nationals over the final weekend of the
regular season, but Washington won the season series, 4-3. Three of
Washington's wins came in front of its fans.
The Cardinals seemed to be on a magic carpet ride last September and that
carried into the postseason. Regardless of the events of Friday's wild card,
the feeling just isn't the same surrounding these Cardinals.
Their magic ends here.
PREDICTION: NATIONALS in FOUR
The Sports Network