Those who think the Washington Nationals are doomed without Stephen Strasburg may care to look at Game 1 of the National League Division Series as reason to believe they are now the favorites to win the pennant.
In their first ever playoff game, the Nationals ground out a 3-2 win over the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals in their ballpark. They won a playoff game with a shaky effort from starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez and shakier defense on the road.
Not bad for act one in the show!
Washington still needs 10 wins to win the World Series, but if Game 1 is an indication of the poise they will play with this October, they are more than just a tough out in the NL playoffs. The Nationals faced their first major test in the postseason and won a game that defied the traditional October script.
If the Nationals can win a game where a Cy Young favorite is well off his game, it would set the tone for the playoffs. Gonzalez gave up two runs and walked seven but ultimately gave them five innings pitched, which was just enough to get to the bullpen. Their bats were silenced by Adam Wainwright as he struck out 10 over 5.2 innings pitched as the Cardinals nursed a tenuous one run lead.
Washington played with confidence and was able to shrink the game and turn it into a battle of the bullpens. Ryan Mattheus earned the win by getting three outs with two pitches in the seventh inning after taking over for Craig Stammen. Tyler Clippard—a season-long closer—was flawless in his inning of work. Drew Storen—who was supposed to be the closer but was injured most of the year—slammed the door in the ninth for his first playoff save.
Ironically, it was the champs who gave the Nationals an extra out, leading to their demise. Peter Kozma’s eighth-inning error gave Washington the break they needed so Tyler Moore could make history with a 2 RBI single that gave them a grip on this series.
These postseason neophytes have the perfect recipe for success in the playoffs. Game 1 of the division series personifies how the Nationals were built for postseason. Their starting pitchers are good for six innings on an off night and Stammen is the first option in middle relief. The bullpen now features Clippard and Storen on the back end for the eighth and ninth innings.
Young players such as Moore, Mattheus and Ian Desmond don’t appear to beat in awe of the postseason after Game 1. They figured out that if you can keep the game close with good pitching and get timely hits you can win games in the playoffs. The Nationals also won without contributions from primary offensive weapons such as Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman or Michael Morse.
That is the same formula that led to the best regular season record in baseball.
Washington is the sum of its parts and Davey Johnson knows which buttons to push at the right time, which makes them the team to beat in the National League.