Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

MLB playoffs: Nationals fans, get ready for a thrilling ride

You better be ready, strapped in, appropriate medications near, enough chips and dip to last until the end of time. The baseball playoffs are here, right at hand, landing like the Mothership, right next to where you live.

If you’ve never had a local team at the heart of this postseason joy-and-jilt ride, you really don’t grasp what’s coming. Watching somebody else’s club doesn’t count. Baseball, as it’s evolved in the wild-card era, is about one thing above all others: having a dog in the hunt in October. If you’ve been in this hot spot with another team in another town in your baseball life, warn your neighbors. Beware: Addiction dead ahead.

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The coming days, starting Sunday afternoon, should provide an agonizing, thrilling, exhausting level of uncertainty and tension that many fans don’t even know exists in sports, certainly not in baseball, a game that, in D.C., has been a sleepy endeavor for 79 years. For relentless sensory bombardment, for hair-yanking twists of fortune, for sudden utterly unexpected explosions of joy, there’s nothing like playoff baseball.

What are we in store for? If the Nats lose in seven games in the National League Championship Series — a middle-of-the-road chalk prediction — Washington would probably have 11 or 12 postseason games in the next 15 or 16 days. Yes, it could be only three games in the next four days at worst. Or it could be 19 in the next 26, though the World Series.

But here’s the highest probability outcome: You’re going to spend the next two weeks going out of your mind on a continuous basis.

No other sport is an exact analogy, but trust me, people in towns with baseball traditions understand: October baseball bears no resemblance to the “pastoral” sport of April through September. The playoffs are more like the Myocardial Infarction Games.

Any of the eight teams that are left, and certainly any team that is good enough to win 98 or 94 games, like the Nats and Orioles, are more than good enough to win the World Series. They may not. But there is no veteran player who doubts that it’s a reasonable outcome.

Beware. If the Nats play like themselves, and don’t collapse into a rattled heap like the Braves did on Friday — which is possible, but unlikely — you better not watch any Nats playoff games at all. Because you get hooked. And it’s a whole lot of games, one right after another before you can get your breath.

The NFL takes two weeks off before the Super Bowl. The Nats (and you) might have only one day off between the division series and the league championship series. There could be five postseason games at Nats Park in six days starting Wednesday. Sleep deprivation is the least of your worries. Hearts (and small pieces of furniture) get broken.

So, this is the point where a prediction is, let’s face it, mandatory. First postseason since 1933, you can’t just say: “It’s baseball. Anything can happen.”

I think the Nats will beat the Cardinals for two reasons — the Nats’ second-half power explosion and their good luck of the pitching matchups throughout this five-game series.

This season, six of the remaining eight teams won 93 to 98 games — all very good, but little to choose among them. I’ve found only one stunning outlier factor. With their lineup finally healthy, the Nats hit 104 home runs after the all-star break compared to 63, 76 and 52for the Cardinals, Reds and Giants. That’s a huge gap. Against the best pitchers, the one-swing offense is the best solution in the playoffs.

Perhaps more important, the Nats have the right pitcher set to start Games 1 and, if necessary, 5. Gio Gonzalez has pitched only one complete-game shutout in his career. It was against the Cardinals five weeks ago (the only time he’s ever faced them). Gonzalez has the lowest batting-average-against of anyone in MLB and swing-and-miss stuff is golden in playoffs.

The St. Louis rotation will be Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse and Wainwright again, all good pitchers. Except against the Nats’ hitters. That’s why the Nats scored 43 runs in seven games against St. Louis this year, winning four of them. The career batting averages of the Nationals’ normal eight-man lineup against these pitchers are: .293, .333, .436, .326 and .293. If you just look at Wainwright over the last three seasons against the Nats hitters, the average goes up from .293 to .328.

I’ve never seen a postseason matchup where almost every hitter in one lineup has crushed, or at least hit decently, against every single starting pitcher in the other rotation. This extends to the Nats’ bench players, too. That pattern doesn’t have to continue. But a lot of Nats don’t feel overmatched by Cardinals pitchers.

The Nationals have another quirk. They have two exceptional road pitchers: Gonzalez, 12-4, and Jordan Zimmermann with a 2.36 ERA. Zimmermann faced the Cardinals in St. Louis last week and had a shutout into the seventh inning.

The Nats also have two starting pitchers, both shaky recently, who fare much better at home than they do on the road — Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler. If you could have one strategic wish for the Nats, it would be that, for one goofy season, the team with home-field advantage in the NLDS would actually begin with two games on the road. Then, Gonzalez and Zimmermann could start Games 1 and 2 in St. Louis while Jackson and Detwiler could start Games 3 and 4 at home where their ERAs were 3.35 and 2.59. Detwiler is 8-2 at home.

But baseball would never do anything so crazy, except this year — one time only — they did. On paper, at least, it couldn’t suit the Nats better.

This figures to be a high-scoring series with a coming-down-to-earth Nats staff facing the NL’s best offense while the Nats’ healthy slugging attack faces few pitchers it fears.

The deciding factor may be the most obvious. Only one starting pitcher on either staff has any history of stellar results against the other: Gonzalez. It was only one shutout and he had an early lead. He’s never started in postseason. And the Cardinals generally enjoy hitting against lefties. But, this year, nobody has enjoyed facing Gonzalez. As for experience, Gonzalez is a postseason novice, but he’s been a standout for three years. Central casting thinks he looks the part. We’ll see what reality has to say.

In a five-game series, Game 1 has historically had enormous momentum impact. Even if the Nats still had Stephen Strasburg available, Gonzalez would still probably be their Game 1, and potentially, Game 5 starter. In an otherwise even battle, that’s a potentially significant edge.

Pick: Nationals in five games.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.

 
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