Only two victories stand between the Nationals and their first World Series appearance in franchise history, as well as the first Fall Classic berth for a Washington-based club since the Senators in 1933. That was 86 years ago, and now the Nationals -- after years of October disappointment and early postseason exits -- get three cracks at home to rewrite that history.
Washington is in that position because it took care of business at Busch Stadium, beginning the National League Championship Series in emphatic fashion by winning Games 1 and 2 behind dominant pitching performances from Aníbal Sánchez and Max Scherzer. The Nats now have a 2-0 series lead, a rested bullpen and Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin lined up to start the series' next two games, starting with Strasburg for Game 3 on Monday from Nationals Park.
Twenty-four teams have won the first two games on the road in a 2-3-2 format, and 18 of them (75 percent) have put the series away at home. But of the six who didn’t, three went on to lose the series. Needless to say, the Nationals don't want to return to St. Louis.
They won’t have to if …
1) Juan Soto's bat gets going
Mild controversy over his in-between-pitch routine aside, Soto hasn’t impacted the NLCS the way he did during the regular season and NL Division Series, when he came up with some of the Nationals’ biggest hits. So far, the Cardinals have used a steady diet of offspeed pitches to keep Soto in check, getting the 20-year-old to go 1-for-9 with five strikeouts over the first two games.
The Nationals' chances of wrapping this series up early would greatly increase should that change, especially since Anthony Rendon (2-for-6 with three walks) hasn’t cooled off one bit. Washington's offense is at its best when its potent 3-4 combo is clicking, and the Nationals are going to need it to be in Game 3 against Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty.
2) Strasburg and Corbin go deep into their starts
The Nationals have asked their starters to carry the load all season, and that remains the blueprint in October. Look what happened when they got 7 2/3 innings of one-hit ball from Sánchez in Game 1 and then seven frames of one-hit ball and 11 strikeouts from Scherzer in Game 2. They won both games. Washington got six strong innings from Strasburg in Games 2 and 5 against the Dodgers in the NLDS. Guess what? The Nats won both those games.
Now, with Strasburg and Corbin slated for Games 3 and 4, respectively, the Nationals have a chance to seal this series if they get more of the same. Washington’s bullpen posted a NL-high 5.68 ERA during the regular season, mostly because of its shaky middle-relief options. Besides Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson at the back end, Nationals manager Dave Martinez has few relievers he feels he can trust in the postseason. He’s going to ride his starters as far as he can, but probably without the luxury of being able to deploy them behind one another in relief. The schedule -- potentially three games in three days in Washington -- makes that strategy more challenging than it was in the NLDS.
“Everything starts with our starting pitchers,” Martinez said. “When they start the game, you try to see how long they can go. Fortunately, we're built -- this team's built around our starting pitching, and they've been pitching really well. I'm hoping that this continues, but there might become a moment where somebody goes five or six innings and we have to do something else. When that happens, we'll have the matchups ready for the in-game decisions."
3) Keep Dexter Fowler, Kolten Wong and Tommy Edman out of the action
This key could just as easily have been “control the running game,” but limiting the impact of these three Cardinals bats sits at the heart of that, too. St. Louis hasn’t gotten anything going offensively, mustering one run on four hits between the first two games of the NLCS. But what the Cardinals have done in attempt to reverse those fortunes speaks volumes.
Yes, St. Louis managed just seven baserunners between Games 1 and 2. But the Cardinals also stole three bases and took an extra bag on an errant throw. The strategy is clear. St. Louis and Washington both have speed -- the two clubs tied for the NL lead during the regular season with 116 stolen bases -- but the Cards own the advantage on the bases. They will continue to look to take advantage of Washington catchers Kurt Suzuki (5-for-50 throwing out runners in the regular season) and Yan Gomes, who are a combined 0-for-8 throwing out runners during the postseason.
“We can compete and do things different ways to get offense, and that hasn’t changed,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “That’s still in motion. We just need more opportunities to do it.”
For the Nationals, that means making sure Fowler, Wong and Edman remain quiet offensively. Those three combined for 47 stolen bases in the regular season and are a combined 0-for-19 with three walks at the plate thus far in the NLCS.