“Playing in the playoffs, whether you have 20 years in the big leagues and five World Series rings or none, you’re going to turn your emotions up,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “It’s about being able to control them and kind of deal with that.”
LaRoche lost in the only two division series he played in, in 2004 and 2005 with the Atlanta Braves, when he was in his mid-20s. He planned to give a simple message to his younger teammates: “Don’t think we need more out of you.”
“It’s before all the games start, making sure guys understand this isn’t the time to step up your game and go play harder,” LaRoche said. “We don’t say, ‘Now it’s playoff time. Now let’s get serious and make sure we’re all locked in.’ That’s not the way baseball works. You’ve got to be relaxed and comfortable. My biggest thing is, don’t change. It’s been good enough to get us here. It’s been good enough to win us a lot of series. Let’s not change something that’s proven to work.”
With Werth in the outfield, LaRoche in the infield, Gonzalez in the bullpen and Jackson in the rotation — and even Mark DeRosa, a veteran left off the roster, on the bench — every player, no matter the position, can seek counsel about what the playoffs have been like for them.
“Everybody has their veteran guys who have been there,” closer Drew Storen said. “It’s tough for me to go up to [DeRosa] and be like, ‘Hey, what’s it like in the playoffs?’ Because he’s a hitter. When you actually have guys that have played your position and have been there, it’s big.”
The Nationals possess a significant experience advantage in the dugout. Not counting the rings he earned as a player, Davey Johnson won the 1986 World Series and has managed 47 playoff games. Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny is a rookie skipper, and he gained all of his postseason managerial experience Friday night.
“I think we’ll be really good, because of Davey,” LaRoche said. “I don’t think he’ll let it get there. If he starts feeling some tension, he’s really good about coming in and cracking a joke or lightening the mood. He’ll say, ‘Hey, it’s a game.’ But I think we’ve got enough confidence now in what we’ve done all year. We’ll be able to stay composed.”
In either elation or despair, the playoffs test a player’s ability to stay composed. Every pitch could unravel 162 games of work. Every stolen base may help land you on a cereal box. Everyone is watching, and anything you do might be remembered.
“Man, it’s like a roller-coaster ride,” Gonzalez said. “Right when you’re on the top of it, and you’re about to go down, and you see everything — that’s the best way to explain that playoff run.”
The playoff run begins Sunday. It is time for fingernails to vanish and palms to start sweating. It is time for late afternoon shadows crawling across the diamond and the chill of early fall to be felt. It is time, in other words, to either back up or buck up.