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Nats penning winning script in pennant pursuit

@AJCassavell
October 14, 2019

ST. LOUIS -- Five days ago, the Washington Nationals boarded a cross-country flight bound for Los Angeles. They packed their suitcases optimistically, not knowing where they were headed next or when they’d be back home. By Saturday evening -- after Max Scherzer had flirted with history in a 3-1 victory

ST. LOUIS -- Five days ago, the Washington Nationals boarded a cross-country flight bound for Los Angeles. They packed their suitcases optimistically, not knowing where they were headed next or when they’d be back home.

By Saturday evening -- after Max Scherzer had flirted with history in a 3-1 victory over the Cardinals in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium -- the Nationals finally had those answers.

And they couldn't have possibly drawn up a better October trek than this one.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 11 WSH 2, STL 0 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 12 WSH 3, STL 1 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 14 WSH 8, STL 1 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 15 WSH 7, STL 4 Watch

It wasn’t merely the fact that Washington ousted the Dodgers to close out the Division Series, then beat the Cardinals twice in St. Louis to open the NLCS. Obviously, the results couldn’t get any better.

But if the manner of those victories counts, the Nationals couldn’t have written a better script. Consider this:

• The fact that it was Aníbal Sánchez who dominated in Game 1 means that two of the nominal big three -- Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin -- are lined up for Games 3 and 4 in D.C.

Dress for success: Shop Nationals NLCS gear

• Aside from Sean Doolittle, the Nationals’ bullpen didn’t really have to work all that hard. Corbin faced one hitter on Saturday and Daniel Hudson -- who missed Game 1 while on the paternity list -- faced two.

Throw in the fact that Sánchez threw only 103 pitches and Scherzer needed just 101, and that’s an awfully fresh pitching staff.

• They’re healthy. Kurt Suzuki returned behind the plate on Saturday after exiting Game 5 of the NLDS in Los Angeles after he was hit by a pitch. Meanwhile, Victor Robles is approaching a return from his right hamstring strain. The Nats weren’t even forced to rush him back into action. Michael A. Taylor, Robles’ replacement in center field, went deep on Saturday.

From the outside, it’s hard to envision things going any better for the Nationals. But they want to make it clear that there’s no point celebrating that fact.

“It’s nice going back up 2-0 in the series,” said Washington manager Dave Martinez. “But those guys are really good over there. The series is far from over. … My message after the game was still, ‘Hey, 1-0 every day.’”

The Nationals are rightly keeping their focus on the present. But history points positively toward their first World Series appearance in franchise history.

Teams that have taken a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series have gone on to with that series 70 of 83 times (84 percent). In series with the current 2-3-2 format, teams that win Games 1 and 2 on the road have secured 21 of 24 victories. The last team to overcome such a deficit was the 1996 Yankees, in the World Series against Atlanta.

Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, who was outdueled by Scherzer on Saturday, acknowledged the Nationals’ decisive edge. But he’s been around long enough to know that the series is still young.

“We’re down 2-0, and that’s why we play a best-of-seven [series], right?” Wainwright said. “They’re going to bring out all the stops, and they have a pretty strong advantage right now. They won two games at our place. We’re going to try and do at least that at theirs.”

The Cardinals have just the man for the job, too. Newly minted ace Jack Flaherty will take the ball for St. Louis in Game 3 opposite Strasburg. Flaherty posted a 2.77 ERA with 16 strikeouts in two Division Series starts -- following a second half during which he notched an otherworldly 0.91 ERA.

If the Cardinals win that duel, they’ll need one more victory to force a return trip to St. Louis. Needless to say, the Nationals do not want to fly back here.

“Same mindset,” Corbin said. “Just try to win Monday. They’re a great team, and they’re here for a reason. We can’t step off the pedal.”

In some ways, this is uncharted territory for the Nationals. Their backs have been against the wall since May when they started the season 19-31. After rallying to reach the postseason, they faced a three-run deficit in the NL Wild Card Game against Milwaukee. Then, Washington fell behind after Games 1 and 3 of the Division Series and trailed the Dodgers 3-0 in Game 5.

Suddenly, everything has changed. The Nationals -- long regarded as the playoff underachievers who needed five tries to advance past the Division Series -- are now heavy favorites for a trip to the Fall Classic.

They’re doing their best to pretend that isn’t the case.

“The reason we played so well is probably because we have a little bit of urgency,” Hudson said. “To be able to get ahead like this, I think we still have to keep our foot on the gas pedal and not think that if we lose one this week, it’s going to be good -- or not bad -- for us. We still have to go out there and be aggressive with these guys … and put them away.”

After a nearly flawless trip to St. Louis, two more wins would do the trick.

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.