NLDS demons behind them, Nats now have eyes on bigger prize

ST. LOUIS - As cathartic as Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium was - and how could it not be, given the massive roadblock they finally overcame in their fifth try - the Nationals were in no mood to rest on their laurels and take satisfaction out of their first postseason series win in club history.

No, there was a good night's sleep still to get, then a flight to catch to St. Louis, then another good night's sleep before they take the field again for their first ever appearance in the National League Championship Series.

Yes, Wednesday night's victory was cause for celebration. But as soon as they were done with that, the Nationals insisted they were moving onto their next challenge.

"We have done this before," manager Davey Martinez said. "They understand how to get back into that groove. And you see it every day with these guys. I mean, they're a lot of fun, a lot of fun to watch, a lot of fun in the dugout. So let's just keep it going."

They will attempt to keep it going beginning tonight at Busch Stadium, where a Cardinals team that was equally flying high after dismantling the Braves in Game 5 of their National League Division Series now waits for a brand-new, best-of-seven showdown. What's at stake? Only a pennant and a spot in the World Series.

This, of course, is uncharted territory for the Nationals, previously 0-for-4 in the NLDS. The Cardinals, on the other hand, are mainstays when it comes to mid-October baseball. This is their 10th trip to the NLCS in 20 years, though their first since 2014.

The NLDS took a lot out of the Nationals. They had to throw everything but the kitchen sink - and they would've thrown the kitchen sink if they believed it could come out of the bullpen and record a few key outs - to topple the 106-win Dodgers.

Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin combined to throw 28 of the series' 45 innings across seven total appearances.

Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Howie Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman combined to drive in 17 of the team's 21 runs in the series.

Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson each made three relief appearances, combining to allow one run in six innings.

Now comes an even tougher challenge. Perhaps the Cardinals (91-71 during the regular season) aren't as daunting as the Dodgers were, but this is now a seven-game series, the first long postseason series the Nationals have ever experienced.

That means the bold strategy Martinez employed in the last round - using his top three arms in relief in the days between their starts - is more perilous. Truth be told, they probably can't afford to do it again, at least not until the outcome of the series is at stake.

"We've got a seven-game series, as we all know," the manager said. "But like I said before, these games right here, you try to go 1-0 like we have done all year long, and try to win that first game. So these guys understand what we're playing for. But with that being said, you've got to make sure that we have our starting pitchers ready to go each game."

And because Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin all pitched in the final two games of the NLDS, none is ready to come back and start Game 1 of the NLCS tonight. That assignment instead falls to Aníbal Sánchez, the veteran right-hander who was outstanding in a Game 3 loss to the Dodgers and presents the only fresh arm the Nats have in their rotation right now.

Anibal-Sanchez-Fired-Up-@-ATL-Red-Sidebar.jpg"The game that I had against the Dodgers, I think I had a really good gameplan with (Kurt Suzuki), so it's helped a lot," said Sánchez, who hasn't faced St. Louis since late April, before he turned his season around. "But tomorrow is going to be a different day, different crowd, different team."

Sánchez, like everyone else in the Nationals rotation, is going to have to provide not just quality but quantity in this series. Five innings simply won't cut it, not with the other starters watching from the dugout this round instead of the bullpen.

The pressure also will fall upon the shoulders of Nats relievers who aren't named Doolittle or Hudson, who can only cover so many innings themselves. Fernando Rodney (who was the team's third-most-trusted reliever during the regular season) and Tanner Rainey (who came up with a couple of big outs in the bottom of the seventh in Game 5) are probably going to be asked to pitch in situations of consequence.

The Nationals have other decisions to make before submitting their final 25-man roster this morning. Do they stick with Wander Suero and Hunter Strickland, who in the NLDS allowed 7-of-14 batters faced to reach base, five of them scoring, four of those launching home runs? Or do they give Javy Guerra, Joe Ross or Erick Fedde a chance? Does Austin Voth, who never appeared in the NLDS, get a shot to pitch meaningful innings, or will he again be held back in case of extra innings?

On the other side of the roster, are the Nationals convinced Suzuki and Victor Robles can play after suffering injuries during the NLDS? Do they make any adjustments to their bench, perhaps adding Andrew Stevenson to serve as a pinch-runner and rally-igniter as a pinch-hitter?

Above all else, can these Nationals find a way to continue what they've already accomplished in recent weeks? They're 3-0 in elimination games. They've won 12 of 14 dating back to the start of their final homestand late last month, during which time they've eliminated the Phillies, Indians, Brewers and Dodgers. They've won two postseason games when trailing in the eighth inning.

They've now reached an unfamiliar place, still playing in mid-October, now facing a best-of-seven series against another of baseball's marquee franchises. They've achieved a lot already. But now there are even bigger prizes within reach.

"It's a great feeling, and I don't think we're done," Strasburg said. "We've got such a great group of guys here, and we're going to keep fighting."

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