Nationals vs. Cardinals, 2012 NLDS: Washington battles defending champions

Brad Mills-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The Nationals League Division Series pits the NL East-champion Washington Nationals against the wild card St. Louis Cardinals in a matchup of young upstarts versus defending champions.

The National League Division Series matchup between the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals is one pitting the bright-eyed up-and-comer against the team that has been there, done that.

After winning their controversial one-game playoff Friday night, the Cardinals will enter the NLDS at the Atlanta Braves' expense for the second consecutive year. Last season the Cards rode a late-season surge and a Braves collapse to claim the NL wild card and stormed on to their 11th World Series title.

Meanwhile, the Nationals finished the 2011 season with an 80-81 record and entered spring training as a trendy pick to make the postseason and even, for a few smirking analysts, win the World Series.

Beset by early-season injuries to key members of its lineup but buoyed by the best starting rotation in the majors, the Nationals surged out of the gates. After receiving an energy boost from the April 27 call-up of 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper, the Nats grabbed the NL East lead on May 22 and never looked back.

About the only place the Nationals have more postseason experience is in the dugout with 69-year-old Davey Johnson, who will match wits with Cardinals rookie skipper Mike Matheny. The Cardinals also enter the playoffs on a hot streak, winning 13 of their last 17 games including Friday's Wild Card bout, while the Nats finished 9-10 down the stretch of the regular season, including a 2-1 series loss to the Cards.

The Nationals won their season series with the Cardinals, 4-3, taking three of four at Nationals Park and outscoring St. Louis 43-40. The Nats enter the playoffs with the best record in baseball.

But they also begin the postseason without their ace, Stephen Strasburg, who's innings cap and Sept. 8 shutdown coming off of 2010 Tommy John surgery became a dominant storyline throughout the 2012 season. The Nats might be able to look for inspiration in last year's Cardinals squad, which won the World Series without their own injured ace, Adam Wainwright, who will toe the rubber in Game One on Sunday against Warren Spahn Award winner Gio Gonzalez.

Baseball Nation's writers have made their postseason predictions, though it should be noted not one of them picked both of Friday night's Wild Card games correctly.

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