Catch your breath over the next three days. The real ride begins Sunday, the time when you pound the snooze button, when you wonder what happened to your fingernails, when you spot strangers with sunken eyes on the Metro and nod knowingly. Playoff baseball is a new level.
The Nationals will play between three and 19 games in the next month in pursuit of winning 11 of them. No one knows what will happen, except that it will be a boatload of fun, and that it will be completely different from the previous six months.
â€śAt this point, [finishing with the best record] is fun facts for the organization,â€ť starter Edwin Jackson said. â€śBut at this point, in the postseason, if you lose out all that gets washed away, or if you win all that gets washed away. At this point, the regular season is over. Now, everybody is starting out 0-0 with no numbers. Itâ€™s what can you do now?â€ť
What can the Nationals do now? The first piece of information to answer that question is their first-round opponent. The one-game wild-card playoff Friday between the Cardinals and Braves will serve as a good appetizer to the madness to follow with the Nationals. When you tune in, which team should you root for?
â€śI donâ€™t know what our record is against both of them,â€ť first baseman Adam LaRoche said. â€śI donâ€™t think weâ€™ve been hammered or dominated either of them over the season, so thatâ€™s why I say I donâ€™t know that it matters a ton. If it was a team that we were 7-2 against, whatever, and another team that hammers us, then yeah, weâ€™d all obviously want to go somewhere where weâ€™ve got a little momentum. But between Atlanta and the Cardinals, I donâ€™t know that it matters. But I havenâ€™t looked at it on a match-up standpoint, either, so I donâ€™t know.â€ť
Said Ian Desmond: â€śDoesn’t matter. All year long, we’ve been taking it one day at a time. I don’t think it really matters who’s on the other side of the field. It matters how we play and that we control the game the way we have been all year.â€ť
And how about you, Jayson Werth? â€śIt doesn’t matter to me.â€ť
The Nationals had similar experiences this season with the Braves and Cardinals — they asserted dominance in early meetings and then got beat up in their most recent matchup. The Braves swept the Nationals in Atlanta from Sept. 14 to 16. This weekend, the Cardinals took a three-game series from the Nationals, outscoring them, 26-12, suffering their only loss in extra innings.
They say you donâ€™t want to face a hot team this time of year, and both the Cardinals and Braves finished strong. The Cardinals ended the regular season on a 12-4 surge, while the Braves finished 12-5.
In the end, the difference comes down to pitching match-ups. For the wild card game, the Braves will start Kris Medlen — which means that if they advance to the division series, Medlen won’t be on the mound until at least game 3. Medlen beat the Nationals both times he faced them year, while against other Braves starters, the Nationals went 10-6. Since July 31, the Braves are 12-0 when Medlen starts and 24-24 when he doesnâ€™t.
The Cardinals are not as reliant on any one starter, and so tabbing Kyle Lohse to pitch the play-in game doesnâ€™t hurt the Cardinals in the next round as much as choosing Medlen will hurt the Braves if they advance. The Braves undoubtedly have the better bullpen, but their starters may be more susceptible.
The Cardinals seem to pose a greater threat to the Nationalsâ€™ starters. The Braves have gone 30-31 against left-handed starters. Even though the Braves had success wearing Gio Gonzalez down in their last meeting, the Nationalsâ€™ combination of Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler would figure to challenge a lineup filled with lefties Michael Bourn, Jason Heyward, Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman.
The Cardinals are 31-17 against left-handed starters this year, third-best in the majors. The Nationals would counter by throwing Jordan Zimmermann second and Edwin Jackson third. But Zimmermann has allowed 11 earned runs in 10 innings against the Cardinals. (He unraveled in one start, then started another with six shutout innings before faltering in the seventh.) In his start against the Cardinals on Friday, Jackson recorded four outs and allowed nine runs. (Like Zimmermann, Jackson was excellent in his other start against the Cardinals.)
Trying to sift through the meetings with each team for evidence or trends is limiting, because it forces one to rely on small sample sizes. The fact of the matter is, both the Braves and Cardinals are good teams without easily definable flaws. Ask tomorrow, and we may have a different opinion.
But after watching the games and combing through numbers, we think the Nationals would be better off if the Braves beat the Cardinals on Friday. Feel free to leave a dissent in the comments section.
FROM THE POST
The Nationals clinched the top seed in the National League with their 5-1 victory over the Phillies to end the regular season.
Rick Maese details how Scott Borasâ€™s fingerprints are all over the Nationals.
There will never be another year like this one, Mike Wise writes.
FROM YESTERDAYâ€™S JOURNAL
THE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Nationals at Braves/Cardinals (Game 1 Sunday)
Reds at Giants (Game 1 Saturday)
Both series feature two games on consecutive days at the lower seed, followed by an off day and then three games on three consecutive days at the higher seed.