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STEVE DESHAZO: Closing series against top NL teams will aid Nats in postseason
WASHINGTON—Baseball’s playoffs don’t officially start for a couple of weeks. But you’ll forgive the Washington Nationals—who will likely be participants for the first time—for acting as if they’ve already begun.
Wednesday’s doubleheader split with the Los Angeles Dodgers moved D.C. to the threshold of its first postseason appearance since the Senators lost Game 5 of the 1933 World Series. That’s heady stuff for a franchise that was a candidate for contraction barely a decade ago and was a second-class ward of Major League Baseball in 2004, its final season in Montreal.
These Nationals—young, athletic, wealthy and successful—bear little resemblance to those Expos, who couldn’t afford to keep their star players. That’s why simply making it to the playoffs is the least of their goals.
“We’re really not thinking about that—I know I’m not,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said after the Nationals’ 3–1 victory in the opener. “We’re thinking about winning the [National League East] division. Obviously, it’s in the back of your mind a little bit. But we’re thinking bigger.”
Of the Nationals’ everyday players, only two have previous postseason experience: outfielder Jayson Werth (with the 2004 Dodgers and 2007–10 Phillies) and first baseman Adam LaRoche (with the 2004–05 Atlanta Braves). Edwin Jackson pitched in the World Series for Tampa Bay in 2008 and St. Louis last year, but the rest of the rotation—as well as the bullpen—will be playoff rookies.
But the schedule-makers did the Nationals a huge favor. Counting last weekend’s three-game sweep by Atlanta, Washington’s final 19 regular-season games will have come against teams still fighting for spots in the expanded playoff field. The Braves are virtual locks for the first NL wild-card spot, and the Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, Phillies and Cardinals are all in the thick of the chase for the second.
So even though they’ve spent all but 10 days atop the NL East and owned baseball’s best record for most of the last two months, the Nationals won’t coast into the postseason.
“It’s great for us,” said Jordan Zimmermann, who pitched six strong innings to earn the first-game victory. “It’s better competition for us. We’re not playing one of the bottom teams. It’s definitely helpful.”
Wednesday’s opener definitely had a playoff feel.
The Nationals manufactured single runs in the second, fifth and sixth innings, and Zimmermann made them stand up, thanks to some sparkling infield defense and three shutout innings from his bullpen. It was a template for success in the postseason, when the cool air makes potential homers die on warning tracks.
“It tells me we can score without hitting home runs,” manager Davey Johnson said with a smile.
How hungry are the Nationals? Second baseman Danny Espinosa took was expected to miss both of Wednesday’s games, but took a cortisone shot in his sore left shoulder–then made two highlight-reel defensive plays and begged Johnson to play in the nightcap. (He failed; Steve Lombardozzi took his place in a wild 7-6 loss that saw Washington rally from a 6-0 deficit to tie it in the eighth.)
It will take that kind of grit—and all of Johnson’s expertise—for the Nationals to win in October. The former Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks have proven that experience is no prerequisite for playoff success, but they’re exceptions.
Youngsters like Espinosa, Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond and even Ryan Zimmerman will get their first taste of the brightest of spotlights, as will most of the pitching staff. (Stephen Strasburg’s postseason début will have to wait for at least a year.)
For decades, the only important games played in D.C. in October involved the Redskins. That will change soon. The Nationals haven’t competed for such high stakes. But for now, at least they’re doing the next best thing.
Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443