Inexperienced Nats not fazed by postseason

Inexperienced Nats not fazed by postseason
October 7, 2012, 1:42 am
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ST. LOUIS -- With a pack of reporters firing off questions and trying to get him to admit he's at least mildly caught up in the moment on the eve of the Nationals' first-ever postseason appearance, Bryce Harper refused to concede the point.

"I think you guys are more nervous than we are," the 19-year-old outfielder said. "It's just another game, just another series. I'm excited, but I'm just going to look at it like another game and another place we play and another team we play. I guess when you step in the box it's going to be a lot different with the crowd and everything, but you can't look at it that way."

Across the Nationals clubhouse Saturday evening, that sentiment prevailed. So what if only four of the 25 players on their roster for the National League Division Series have any postseason experience, totaling 67 games? And so what if 21 of the Cardinals' 25 players have been through this before, combining to appear in a staggering 290 postseason games?

The Nationals insist that won't make much of any difference when the two clubs take the field Sunday afternoon for Game 1 of a highly anticipated series.

"I think this team has done it all year, handle our emotions," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "This whole year has been something that's supposed to be new for us. You know, we were in first place and then we shouldn't have been in first place. And then we were in first place and everybody said, oh, they'll lose it. And then we were in first place and they said, OK, maybe they're for real. And then we were in first place ... so everyone always says that stuff. But for us, we always go out there and play one game at a time. I feel like that's why we've done so well this year."

Indeed, the Nationals managed to post an MLB-best 98-64 record by staying within the moment, never looking too far ahead or behind, never getting too high after wins or too low after losses.

This, though, could be an entirely different animal. The postseason is a meat grinder of an experience, with so much more riding on every at-bat and every pitch than most of these first-time participants understand.

Making the challenge all the more difficult: The Nationals' opponent in this best-of-five series. St. Louis remains defending World Series champions and has excelled in the highest of high-pressure situations.

Five times in the last calendar year, the Cardinals have faced a do-or-die elimination game. And five times, they have emerged victorious, including Friday night in their NL Wild Card triumph over the Braves.

"I think playing in big moments year after year gives you an edge," said right-hander Adam Wainwright, who on Sunday will appear in his 11th career postseason game. "I feel like you'll be be more comfortable in those situations when you're faced with it over and over again. And last year's experience, playing the last month of the season like every day was your last ... it gives you an edge."

The Nationals watched Friday night's game with keen interest, knowing they would be facing whichever team escaped Turner Field with the win. They weren't, however, uniformly rooting for one participant or the other.

"We really didn't care who we played," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "I think I can speak for everybody, it was really 50-50 there. We were watching more as fans than rooting for a specific team because it was a match-up situation. Either way, we were good with it."

The Nationals' pitching staff may have matched up slightly better with the Braves left-handed-heavy lineup, but their lineup may match up slightly better with a Cardinals pitching staff that includes only two lefties: Jaime Garcia (who will start Game 2) and relief specialist Mark Rzepczynski.

Above all else, they'll need their own rotation to hold down a St. Louis that scored 40 runs in seven head-to-head games this season, including 26 during a three-game series here last weekend.

Thus, there will be some pressure on Gio Gonzalez to get his team off on the right foot, hand-picked by Davey Johnson to start Game 1.

"It's really an easy choice," the 69-year-old manager said. "Gio would have hung me if I didn't have him going first."

With Stephen Strasburg relegated to dugout observer following his early-September shutdown, Gonzalez stepped up his game and ascended to the role of staff ace. Over his final six regular-season starts, the lefty went 5-1 with a 1.35 ERA and earned the trust of his teammates and skipper to be handed the ball for their first postseason game.

"It's a childhood dream," the 27-year-old said. "I think it's every kid's childhood dream who wants to play baseball."

As it is for the 20 other members of the Nationals roster who are experiencing the postseason for the first time.

Most, like Harper, have no idea what awaits them. The handful of teammates who have been through this before are trying to make sure they don't get caught up in the hysteria.

"What I've told most of the young guys is: Don't change a thing," LaRoche said. "We're in this position for a reason. We've been one of the best teams in baseball all year. It's obviously worked. Let's continue to do it."