Okay, take a deep breath. The Washington Nationals slipped through a nerve-racking, come-from-behind wild-card game, beating the Milwaukee Brewers, 4-3.
Now comes a bigger test: a five-game National League Division Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Will it be too tough a test for the Nats?
Los Angeles, after all, had a National League-best regular-season record of 106-56 (106 wins, 56 losses). Washington was 93-69.
But the two teams may be closer than it appears. After May 23, the Nats posted a sparkling regular-season record of 74-38. The Dodgers’ record over that stretch? The same. So the Dodgers and Nats have played a similar brand of winning baseball for more than four months.
The Dodgers lineup is loaded with front-line talent. Outfielder Cody Bellinger put up Most Valuable Player (MVP) kind of numbers this season by batting .305, blasting 47 home runs and driving in 115 runs.
Nats third baseman Anthony Rendon’s statistics — a .319 batting average, 34 home runs and 126 runs batted in — were as good as Bellinger’s.
Pitching is probably the most important part of any short series. Los Angeles had the best earned run average in the National League. The team allowed opponents only a little more than three earned runs (3.37) every nine innings. Washington’s earned run average was almost a run higher (4.27).
But the Nats’ top starting pitchers — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez — are as good as any team in baseball and probably a bit better than the Dodgers’ top starters.
The big difference is among the teams’ relief pitchers. Los Angeles had the fourth-ranked bullpen in the major leagues. Washington’s bullpen was a disaster, the worst in baseball.
But in the playoffs, managers use only a few of their most-trusted relievers. So some of the Nats’ relief pitchers who struggled during the regular season may not see any action against the Dodgers.
If the Nats starters can go six or seven strong innings, Manager Dave Martinez may be able to stitch together a few wins with Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson and Tanner Rainey (or maybe Hunter Strickland or Fernando Rodney) coming out of the pen.
I admit that the Dodgers are the better team. They proved it over a 162-game season. But the Nats have to beat them only three times in a five-game series. A bad bounce, a lucky hit or a fantastic catch may make all the difference in one game.
And one game may make all the difference.