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Nats' 3 keys: Bullpen, Mad Max, meat of lineup

@mi_guardado
October 3, 2019

LOS ANGELES -- Fresh off their first elimination game win, the Nationals will now aim to exorcise more ghosts of Octobers past when they take on the Dodgers in the National League Division Series and attempt to advance to their first NL Championship Series.

LOS ANGELES -- Fresh off their first elimination game win, the Nationals will now aim to exorcise more ghosts of Octobers past when they take on the Dodgers in the National League Division Series and attempt to advance to their first NL Championship Series.

NLDS presented by Utz, Game 1: Tonight, 8:30 p.m. ET on TBS

The Nationals came back to defeat the Brewers, 4-3, in a thrilling NL Wild Card Game on Tuesday, but the path ahead remains daunting. Washington will now take on the behemoth Dodgers in a best-of-five series that begins tonight with a matchup between Patrick Corbin and Walker Buehler at Dodger Stadium.

“There's a lot more to do,” manager Dave Martinez said Wednesday. “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.”

Adversity is nothing new for the Nationals, who overcame a 19-31 record on May 23 to surge to their fifth postseason berth in eight seasons. The following three factors will be key for the Nationals to topple the Dodgers:

1. The bullpen holds up

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 3 LAD 6, WSH 0 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 4 WSH 4, LAD 2 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 6 LAD 10, WSH 4 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 7 WSH 6, LAD 1 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 9 WSH 7, LAD 3 Watch

The bullpen, which posted the second-worst ERA in the Majors this year, has been the Nationals’ most glaring weakness all season. They managed to circumvent any potential blowups by leaning on starters Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg for eight innings in Tuesday’s Wild Card Game, but limiting their bullpen’s exposure will be far more difficult in the NLDS.

Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson have proved reliable while splitting closing duties, but Washington will also need quality innings from the likes of Fernando Rodney, Tanner Rainey, Hunter Strickland and Wander Suero.

2. Scherzer returns to dominance

Scherzer will likely draw NL Cy Young Award votes for his overall body of work in 2019, but the 35-year-old veteran hasn’t been quite right since returning from the injured list on Aug. 22. In eight starts over that span, Scherzer has posted a 4.81 ERA while allowing 10 home runs over 43 innings.

Scherzer gave up three runs -- all on home runs by Yasmani Grandal and Eric Thames -- over five innings against the Brewers on Tuesday and will be unavailable to pitch for the first two games of the NLDS. He is in line to start Game 3 on normal rest in what figures to be a key swing game in the series. The Dodgers feature a deep lineup that led the NL in home runs and posted an .824 OPS against righties this season, so Scherzer will have to find a way to minimize damage and return to form on Sunday.

3. Rendon, Soto carry the offense

Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto have formed one of the best offensive 1-2 punches in baseball for much of this season, but the duo endured cool downs at the plate over the final weeks of the regular season. Rendon ended his MVP-caliber season by going only 3-for-30 (.100) over his final 10 games of the regular season. Soto delivered the game-winning hit in Tuesday’s Wild Card Game -- a two-run, bases-loaded single off Josh Hader in the eighth inning -- but he, too, had been mired in a bit of a slump before that, going 5-for-44 (.114) with no home runs over his previous 15 games.

Runs tend to be at a premium in October, but the Nationals will need their Nos. 3 and 4 hitters to anchor the lineup and exert consistent pressure on the Dodgers’ pitching staff.

Maria Guardado covers the Giants for MLB.com. She previously covered the Angels from 2017-18. Follow her on Twitter.