WASHINGTON -- The path was much different than for any of their previous four trips, but the Nationals are headed back to the postseason, clinching a National League Wild Card berth and storming into October with a season-high eight-game winning streak.
It’s the first time in franchise history Washington will enter October through the NL Wild Card Game, but before that winner-take-all game in D.C. on Tuesday night, there are still quite a few questions to be sorted out.
How much does home-field advantage matter for the Wild Card Game?
It depends on whom you ask. Of course, the Nationals are happy to play this critical game at Nationals Park, but they didn’t necessarily go out of their way to ensure they would. Since the Wild Card Game began in 2012, home teams are just 6-8.
“I don’t know. That game is such a coin flip,” Sean Doolittle said. “Obviously, you want it at home, because I think logistically it would be a heck of a lot easier, right? We finish the season at home, we have a day off, and then we play that game rather than trying to fly somewhere. … And [it's] just a comfort thing. I feel like we played really well at home, especially in the second half, and hopefully we can make that happen.”
How did the Nationals match up with the Brewers this season?
The Brewers saw both versions of the Nationals in 2019, starting with a three-game set in Milwaukee back in May, when the Nats were in disarray. Washington was swept on the way toward bottoming out at 12 games under .500 later in the month, and the two teams appeared headed in opposite directions. The same could be said when the teams parted ways in August, after the Nationals took two out of three games at Nationals Park, dropping only a 14-inning marathon after a blown save from Doolittle. Washington was in command of an NL Wild Card spot after that series, leading Milwaukee by 3 1/2 games, a deficit the Brewers nearly erased with their red-hot September.
These two teams will also take different approaches to getting through the Wild Card Game, with the Brewers likely to lean heavily on their bullpen against a Nationals team built on starting pitching. Speaking of which…
Max Scherzer is going to start the Wild Card Game, but what can the Nationals expect from him?
Who else would the Nationals rather have with the ball in his hand and the season on the line? Scherzer seems confident that the health issues that interrupted his second half are behind him. Each strong outing since his return from the injured list on Aug. 22 has inspired confidence that he can be Mad Max again when the Nats need it. And behind him, the Nationals will have the rest of their starting rotation lined up in the bullpen.
“I feel great. I feel sharp,” Scherzer said on Friday. “I feel like I'm really built for 100 pitches right now. I feel like I'm still executing better than ever, even when you look back to the Cardinals start to [Tuesday against the Phillies], I was finishing this start stronger, even from pitch 90 on. So that just shows you, I'm continuing to make strides in where I'm at. And I feel really good about going forward in the playoffs.”
Who will be available out of the bullpen?
The bullpen is going to look a lot different behind Scherzer, with the possibility that both Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin will be available in relief if manager Dave Martinez should elect to use his starters out of the bullpen. Strasburg has never pitched out of the ‘pen, but he will be on regular rest and has said he is open to doing whatever the team asks. Corbin, meanwhile, pitched on Saturday, so an appearance in the Wild Card Game would come on short rest, and he’s likely to be available only for about an inning, or at least for a tough matchup against a lefty.
Who fills out the right side of the infield?
Most of Martinez’s lineups depend on matchups, but he has five capable players — Asdrúbal Cabrera, Howie Kendrick, Brian Dozier, Matt Adams and Ryan Zimmerman — for two spots on the right side on the infield. Kendrick’s bat is so red-hot it will be difficult to keep him out of the lineup, and Cabrera has earned the nod as the starting second baseman lately. Those two are likely to at least begin the postseason as the starters.
Will anyone be ready to start a potential Game 1 of the NL Division Series?
The short answer is, the Nationals will worry about that when they get there. Martinez seems comfortable using whoever he needs to get through Tuesday’s game -- going 1-0 every day has been a motto of his this season -- before worrying about the next round. It makes sense for the Nats to hold at least one of their aces back for the start of the NLDS on Thursday, but Martinez said earlier in the week that he still feels confident if Aníbal Sánchez has to start one of the early games in that series if necessary.
How healthy will the Nationals be for the postseason?
Kurt Suzuki (inflammation in right elbow) started twice over the weekend, and homered on Sunday, and should be ready to catch Scherzer on Tuesday night, as he did for most of the season. Roenis Elias (strained right hamstring), however, has not thrown off a mound yet, and won’t be ready for the start of the playoffs, though if the Nationals advance, he could be a candidate for a later round.
When do the playoffs start?
The NL Wild Card Game will take place on Tuesday. The winner of that game will advance to the NL Division Series, which is scheduled to begin on Thursday, with Game 2 to follow on Friday.