As glow of wild card win fades, Nats shift focus to NLDS

LOS ANGELES - The thrill of victory and the smell of champagne and beer had worn off. In their place was a happy but tired Nationals club that celebrated Tuesday night's epic wild card victory over the Brewers hard, then spent all of Wednesday afternoon flying across the country, then spent Wednesday night working out under the lights at Dodger Stadium, where tonight they'll open a best-of-five National League Division Series with a 106-win team from L.A.

The previous 24 hours had been a whirlwind, what with their dramatic, come-from-behind win in Washington to stave off elimination, followed by the long trip west. They were excited to be here, but they also recognized that they had better refocus quickly on the monumental task now at hand.

Martinez close up looking on.jpg"There's a lot more to do," manager Davey Martinez said. "We have to start by playing Game 1. Focus on Game 1. Those guys, we're all excited about what happened yesterday and what transpired. But they understand what's ahead of them."

What's ahead of them is a daunting challenge. Win three out of five against the NL's best team. And do that having already expended a lot of energy (and manpower) to get through Tuesday's wild card madness and simply qualify for this first full round of the postseason.

With due respect to the team they just vanquished back home, these are not the Milwaukee Brewers. These Dodgers are a complete ballclub, built not only to win its division every year but now to get over the ultimate hump and win its first World Series in 31 years, having lost the Fall Classic each of the last two Octobers.

Then again, the Nationals are no slouches. Forget, for a moment, their status as a wild card team and instead focus on what they did this season. Or, more specifically, the last 112 games of the season.

The Nats, as you know by now, turned their season around beginning May 24, playing .661 ball (74-38) from that day forward. That was tied for the NL's best record over that prolonged stretch, matched only by ... the Dodgers.

This is a star-studded matchup of powerhouse rosters. It's Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin against Kershaw, Ryu and Buehler. It's Rendon vs. Bellinger. It's Soto, Kendrick and Turner vs. Pederson, Muncy and Turner.

"I think we match up well with them," said Patrick Corbin, who starts Game 1 tonight against Walker Buehler.

It's true. The Dodgers won four of the seven games between these teams this season, winning the aggregate score 30-27.

The Nationals, though, didn't quite put their best foot forward when facing Los Angeles. Their mid-May, four-game split at Chavez Ravine featured an injury-ravaged lineup that included Gerardo Parra making his first career start at first base. And in one of their two losses in late July in D.C., the Nats used Matt Grace as an opener, with Joe Ross following him out of the bullpen. (It didn't go well.)

The Nationals as currently constructed are as healthy as they've been all season. They're perhaps as healthy as they've ever been entering the postseason.

Both teams have deep and potent lineups that ranked 1-2 in the NL in runs per game (5.47 for the Dodgers, 5.39 for the Nationals). They ranked 1-2 in on-base percentage (.342 for the Nats, .338 for the Dodgers) and OPS (.810 for the Dodgers, .796 for the Nationals).

Here's a new twist to the story, though: For the first time in five trips to the NLDS over the last eight seasons, the Nationals are underdogs. Yep, they always had home-field advantage in each of their previous October appearances, and in each case still lost the series (including a five-game heartbreaker to the Dodgers in 2016).

Now, though, the Nats are the 93-win wild card team taking on the big, bad, 106-win Dodgers. They cannot win this series without winning at least one game on the road. All the major projection models give Los Angeles roughly a two-in-three chance of winning the series.

It's a new path these Nationals are taking this time around. We found out Tuesday night they're capable of doing something they've never done before. Perhaps they're capable of doing even more.

Suero, Voth added to Nationals bullpen for NLDS
Nats waiting to see if Strasburg is ready to start...

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