Would the Nationals have won the NLCS?

Would the Nationals have won the NLCS?
October 22, 2012, 8:30 am
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If you've been able to muster up the strength to watch this year's NLCS -- and it's perfectly understandable if you haven't, given how Game 5 of the NLDS ended -- you've seen quite a compelling series between the last two World Series champions, each of them making a desperate push to reach the Fall Classic again.

You also might have emerged from all this contemplating a simple, and perhaps painful, question: Would the Nationals have won this thing had they simply not blown a six-run lead to the Cardinals 10 days ago?

There's legitimate reason to believe they would, in fact, have won the pennant and secured a date with the Tigers in the World Series.

There's obviously no way to know how a series that never took place would have played out. But given the way they handled the Giants during the regular season, and given the way that potential NLCS would have set up, the Nationals certainly would have been in a favorable position.

The Giants, make no mistake, are a resilient bunch and got some fantastic pitching performances from Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong to win Games 5 and 6 and stave off elimination. But they haven't done much of anything at the plate, aside from Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval, and will enter Game 7 with a .241 team batting average and paltry .369 slugging percentage in the series.

The Nationals, meanwhile, feasted on Vogelsong during their only encounter this season, racking up eight runs on nine hits Aug. 13 against what was then the NL's ERA leader.

But the biggest advantage the Nationals would have had in this phantom NLCS would have been their home-field advantage. The Giants' pitching staff fared far better at AT&T Park this season (3.09 ERA) than it did away from that spacious ballpark along McCovey Cove (4.29 ERA).

And unlike the case in the actual NLCS against the fourth-seeded Cardinals, third-seeded San Francisco would not have held home-field advantage against Washington. Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 would have been played at Nationals Park, which you have to believe would have favored Davey Johnson's club.

Not only because of the Giants' road struggles this season, but because of history. Home-field advantage may not mean much in the best-of-five Division Series, but it means a whole lot in the best-of-seven Championship Series and World Series.

There have been only 23 Game 7s played in baseball over the last 30 years. And in those winner-take-all showdowns, the home team is 18-5.

History, then, would have been on the Nationals side had they found themselves in position to host Game 7 of the NLCS tonight.

That game, of course, isn't being played on South Capitol Street. It's being played on the other side of the continent, in front of a rabid San Francisco fan base that figures to aid the Giants' cause.

That may still be a bitter pill for the Nationals and their fans to swallow, recognizing just how close they were to finding themselves in this very position right now instead of watching it all unfold on television.

But if you've refused to partake yourself over the last week, do yourself a favor and tune in to Game 7 tonight. These classic October battles, as pointed out above, simply don't happen that often. And they typically produce some of the most memorable games in baseball history, whether it was rookie David Price preserving the upstart Rays' ninth-inning lead against the mighty Red Sox in 2008 or Aaron Boone taking Tim Wakefield deep into the Bronx night in 2003 or Sid Bream sliding in just ahead of Barry Bonds' throw to the plate in 1992.

Yes, it may still be painful to realize the Nationals could -- perhaps should -- have been the ones playing tonight. But nothing is going to change that now. Might as well enjoy the high drama of a Game 7 involving two franchises that have been staving off elimination all month and now meet in the ultimate pressure cooker of a ballgame.