Nats must take advantage of home field

Nats must take advantage of home field
October 9, 2012, 3:16 am
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ST. LOUIS -- As much as the one-time-only format change to MLB's Division Series this year -- with the lesser team getting to host Games 1 and 2 -- has been criticized, there was one scenario in particular in which a team like the Nationals would actually benefit.

Sure, you could argue it wasn't fair for the team with baseball's best regular-season record to have to open the playoffs on the road in a hostile environment. But by merely winning one of the first two games of their NLDS against the Cardinals, the Nationals put themselves in a position where they now go home knowing they just need to take care of business to advance to the next round.

"With the two games on the road, I think it's almost fairer," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "It's like I said: Our job coming in here was to split the series, and we did that."

That they did. Oh, make no mistake, a 12-4 debacle in Game 2 at Busch Stadium was an ugly spectacle to behold, whether you were among the crowd of 45,840 in St. Louis or back home watching on television.

But you don't advance in the postseason on style points. It's an eitheror proposition. Either you win a game, or you lose it. The final score doesn't really matter.

"A loss is a loss," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I don't think anyone cared that we won by one yesterday. The goal was to win one game out here. Obviously, two would have been a bonus. But you split it, you go home, have an off-day tomorrow and regroup and relax a little bit and come out ready to win a series."

Win a series. That's now what the Nationals must try to accomplish. Three games in three days, all at home, all against the Cardinals.

Take away the cooler temperatures, sellout crowds and media throng and it's not all that different from a three-game homestand in mid-August, the goal still being to win twice.

Some perspective: The Nationals hosted 16 three-game series this year on South Capitol Street. They won 11 of those sets.

"It's basically go home and win a series," Zimmerman said. "Just like we've done all year."

OK, maybe there's a bit more riding on these next three games than any other three games they've played this season. But these Nationals have been good all along at focusing on the task at hand and not getting caught up in the bigger picture.

They'll have to maintain that tunnel vision now, ignoring the hoopla that will come with the first playoff game in D.C. since the 1933 World Series, which may be easier said than done.

Washington has been anticipating this moment for a long time, and though the circumstances might not be ideal for many -- a 1:07 p.m. weekday start -- the scene at Nationals Park on Wednesday will be unlike anything the town and most of these players have ever experienced.

"I think our fan base is going to come out strong," Werth said. "We've had a lot of support down the stretch, and people have been coming out in waves. Should be a packed house. Should be a lot of fun. And I can't wait to get back home in front of our fans and take care of business."

The Nationals will need an especially big-time performance from Edwin Jackson, who in the wake of two suspect starts by Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann suddenly has some added weight on his right shoulder.

In one regard, there are few guys Davey Johnson would rather entrust in this spot than Jackson, the only member of his rotation with postseason experience, not to mention a guy capable of dominating an opponent any time he takes the mound (like he did holding St. Louis to one unearned run over eight innings on Aug. 30).

"Jackson's got a lot of experience," Johnson said. "He pitched a heck of a ballgame against them. He's certainly up for it."

At the same time, Jackson is just as capable of getting knocked out in the second inning (like he did against this same St. Louis club only 10 days ago).

"Having E-Jax on the bump is going to be great for us," center fielder Bryce Harper said. "We played great at home all year. It's going to be great to go back there and really get in a groove."

After a somewhat ragged start to their postseason experience, the Nationals are heading home, and they may just get to stay there for quite a while. In fact, they could theoretically host their next five games at Nationals Park, 10 of their next 13.

It's what they earned by winning more of 162 regular-season games than any other team in the sport.

Now, they simply need to take advantage of home-field advantage.