On Friday afternoon, the first day of baseball’s postseason, the team with the best record in the major leagues will file into an empty stadium to prepare for a faceless opponent in an unknown location. The Washington Nationals will work out, wait and watch as they begin their first-ever postseason at the mercy of a first-ever format.
The Nationals will begin the postseason Sunday. They will open the National League Division Series, because of a one-year scheduling quirk, on the road. At the moment, that is all they know.
The winner of Friday night’s one-game, wild-card playoff between the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis will host the Nationals on Sunday and Monday in the first two games of the NLDS. The Nationals’ first home game, the first major league playoff game in Washington since 1933, will take place Wednesday, followed by games Thursday and Friday if necessary.
If you need a refresher, the top two seeds in each league will both start on the road in the first round. Last year, MLB announced their regular season schedule before they had ratified the new collective bargaining agreement, which included the new, two-wild card format.
Not wanting to push the World Series deeper into November, MLB shortened the postseason by removing one travel day in the first round. So, rather than the traditional 2-2-1 format – which the league will return to next year – it switched to a 2-3 schedule.
The entire new format, especially the introduction of the one-game playoff, did not set well with Manager Davey Johnson.
“I hate it,” Johnson said. “I’m old school. Twenty-five percent of the playoff teams, they took it away, really. From a manager, it lessened my spots available to me. Why would I like it?”
After the Nationals practice at Nationals Park on Friday, they will head home and watch the Braves-Cardinals playoff game, which starts at 5:07 p.m. The Nationals went 10-8 against the division rival Braves and 4-3 against the Cardinals, and based on their initial reaction Wednesday, they have no rooting interesting.
“I don’t think we’ve been hammered or dominated either of them over the season, so that’s why I say I don’t know that it matters a ton,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “If it was a team that we were 7-2 against, whatever, and another team that hammers us, then yeah, we’d all obviously want to go somewhere where we’ve got a little momentum. But between Atlanta and the Cardinals, I don’t know that it matters.”
Said shortstop Ian Desmond: “It doesn’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.”
The result of the game will also have an impact on the construction of the Nationals’ postseason roster. The Nationals will set their rotation with Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann pitching Game 1 and Game 2. The starters behind them will be dictated on the opponent.
If the Nationals play the Braves, they would make left-hander Ross Detwiler their No. 3 starter and likely slot right-hander Edwin Jackson as the fourth starter. The Nationals would also consider making John Lannan their fourth starter against the Braves in order to cram another lefty into the rotation. This year, the Braves went 64-37 against right-handed starters, best in the majors, and only 31-31 against lefties.
Conversely, the Cardinals went 31-17 against left-handers and a pedestrian 57-57 against right-handed starters. If the Nationals head to St. Louis, Jackson would start Game 3 and Detwiler would start Game 4.
The Nationals will wade into the postseason with home-field advantage in every round, should they advance, based on their 98 wins, the most in the majors. As soon as they board their flight Saturday at noon, in pursuit of 11 wins over the next month, their destination finally known, they realize their accomplishments will cease to mean anything.
“At this point, it’s fun facts for the organization,” Jackson said. “But 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. It’s what can you do now?”
More coverage of the Nationals and MLB:
Boswell: The year baseball went National
Transcript: Hamilton on the Nationals, and more
Video: The story of the Nationals