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STEVE DESHAZO: More in store for NL East winners?

Now that our long National nightmare is over and Washington finally has a playoff baseball team, how long will its fans get to enjoy the ride?

The Nationals have said all along thatjust getting to the postseason wasn’t enough. But this is a young team that has shown unmistakable signs of fatigue and inexperience in the past week, occasionally stumbling down the home stretch of a marathon regular season.

And unless it can regroup quickly, its initial playoff experience could be a short one.

Look at Washington’s potential playoff opponents. Entering Tuesday, the Cincinnati Reds shared baseball’s best record (96–64) with Washington. The San Francisco Giants have a top-notch pitching staff and World Series experience.

Atlanta has been baseball’s best team for the past month and swept a recent three-game series from Washington. These Braves were as hot in September as last year’s team was cold in the final month. And they have a cause: playing for the retiring Chipper Jones.

The other likely wild-card entry, St. Louis, is merely the defending World Series champion and took two of three games from the Nationals just last weekend, scoring 26 runs in the process.

Last year’s Cardinals proved the playoffs offer a fresh start, and that anything can happen in October. The Nationals hope that’s true.

On paper, Washington has as good a shot as anyone. Its pitching staff carried the team for the first half of the season, and once the everyday lineup got healthy, the bats caught up. Only three National League teams have committed fewer errors.

Here’s a stat to consider: If Edwin Jackson wins Wednesday’s finale, all five Nationals starters will have at least 10 victories. In 2007 and 2009, no Washington pitcher had that many.

Yes, Stephen Strasburg will be missed. But in 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Jackson and Ross Detwiler, the Nationals have a credible four-man rotation.

The problem is that only Jackson has postseason experience, and always as the No. 3 or 4 starter. The other three will be in uncharted waters when they take the mound in October, when strike zones get tighter and pressure ramps up.

The same goes for a stingy bullpen that’s composed of hard-throwing young arms. Tyler Clippard became closer by necessity and did a fabulous job for most of the season. But he has showed signs of wear, allowing seven runs over 9 innings in his last 10 appearances.

Fortunately for the Nats, Drew Storen has regained the closer job and his confidence, posting a 1.04 ERA in a similar span. But his next postseason pitch will be his first.

Meanwhile, Washington’s lineup has been one of baseball’s best since the All-Star break, averaging more than five runs a game. But just two of the regulars (Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche) have taken at-bats in the postseason, when runs get scarcer and the cool air turns home runs into warning-track fly balls. Even Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-tenured National, will be experiencing something new.

Ultimately, the Nationals’ postseason fortunes may rest with three men: Davey Johnson, Werth and Bryce Harper.

At 69, Johnson is baseball’s oldest manager. There’s nothing he hasn’t seen, and his instincts are rarely wrong. He’s been a steadying influence on a young team, pushing all the right buttons.

Harper’s hustle and remarkable skill set can ignite his team at bat, in the field or on the bases.

At 19, he has been largely immune to the pressure, but how will he handle baseball’s brightest spotlight? He may justify his ridiculous hype, or try too hard, take an unwise chance and relive some of the inevitable struggles of his rookie season.

Werth won a ring in Philadelphia, and he is credited with changing the attitude in the Nationals’ clubhouse. Though a broken wrist cost him half a season and sapped his power, he’s been a mentor to Harper, helping to earn his $18 million per year.

With little postseason experience and no Strasburg, the Nationals will need more of what got them to this point. It’s been a fun six-month ride; the seventh figures to be the most intriguing yet.

Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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