By Mike Frandsen
The Washington Nationals will make history Sunday in St. Louis when they take the field against the Cardinals in Game 1 of the best-of-five National League Division Series. The game will be the first playoff appearance for a Washington baseball team since the Washington Senators won the American League Pennant in 1933.
An entire generation of D.C. baseball fans went without baseball in D.C. for 33 years until 2005, when the Montreal Expos moved to the nation’s capital. The Senators moved to Minnesota in 1960, and the expansion Senators arrived the next year but moved to Texas in 1971.
“First in War, First in Peace, Last in the American League,” was the joke about the Senators, who only had five winning seasons since 1933.
The new Nats weren’t much better, with no winning seasons until 2012, when they finished with the best record in baseball with 98 wins, 18 more than in 2011.
Washington’s reward is to take on the Cardinals, last year’s World Series champions. St. Louis advanced to the NLDS after winning the NL wild-card game Friday over Atlanta, 6-3.
While Washington has one World Series title – the Senators won in 1924 – the Cardinals are one of baseball’s historic franchises, winning the World Series 11 times, most recently in 2006 and 2011.
The Nats may have had the better season, with the Cardinals winning 88 games, but St. Louis trumps Washington in playoff experience. The Cards have made the playoffs three of the last four seasons. Meanwhile, most of Washington’s playoff experience comes from Jayson Werth, who made the playoffs from 2007 to 2010 with Philadelphia.
The Cardinals own the best on-base percentage in the majors while the Nats have the second-best ERA in baseball. Both teams possess balanced lineups. Washington boasts four 20-home run hitters. The Cards have five players who hit more than 20 who will bat second through sixth: Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina, and David Freese
Rookie 19-year old phenom Bryce Harper was one of four Nats to make the All-Star team. Harper had one of the best seasons ever for a teenager, joining the likes of Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey, Jr. Harper hit 22 homers with 59 RBI and 26 doubles in 139 games while batting .270.
Harper was joined on the All-Star team by shortstop Ian Desmond and starting pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. First baseman Adam LaRoche had an MVP-type season with 33 homers and 100 RBI, while third baseman Ryan Zimmerman had another solid year with 25 and 95. Zimmerman has experienced all seven of the Nats’ non-winning seasons and will make his first playoff appearance against St. Louis.
Outfielder Jayson Werth only played half the season because of a broken wrist. Despite hitting only 5 home runs with 31 RBI, Werth batted .300 and played leadoff for the Nats after his injury, and provided leadership to a team with most of its players in their 20s.
Washington will go without Strasburg for the playoffs, after he was shutdown in September to prevent wear and tear on his surgically repaired elbow. The decision was controversial around the country, but in D.C. fans understand Strasburg will be the team’s ace for a long time.
The pitching matchup for the series opener features Cy Young candidate Gonzalez (21-8, 2.89 ERA) against the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright (14-13, 3.94). The Cardinals’ ace, Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86) won the wild card game and won’t be available until Game 4. Jason Motte saved 42 games for the Cards; no other teammate had a save.
Nats manager Davey Johnson announced that he’ll go with Jordan Zimmermann for Game 2, Edwin Jackson for Game 3, and Ross Detwiler for Game 4 if necessary. The Cards will counter with Jaime Garcia and Chris Carpenter for Games 2 and 3.
Tyler Clippard saved 32 games for the Nats in 2012, but Johnson has the option of using Drew Storen as a closer. Storen made 43 saves in 2011 and has an ERA of 2.37 this season as opposed to Clippard’s 3.72.
Johnson is taking his fourth team to the playoffs, while Cards first-year manager Mike Matheny has St. Louis in the postseason again one year after Tony LaRussa retired. St. Louis withstood the departure of three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols to the Angels in the offseason.
The World Series droughts of the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, and White Sox have received more publicity, but Washington didn’t even have a team for more than three decades.
There aren’t too many people alive who remember playoff baseball in Washington. When Game 3 is played in the nation’s capital, it should be something to behold. Game 1 shouldn’t be too bad either. It has been a long wait, but D.C. is finally joining the party.
Mike Frandsen is a freelance writer covering all things Redskins. His work can be found on Examiner.com.