The Nationals were just one out away from advancing to the National League Championship Series last October before the Cardinals rallied for four ninth-inning runs to defeat Washington in the do-or-die NLDS Game 5.
With both teams intent on returning to the postseason this year, the two NL powerhouses will meet Monday night for the first time since last year's dramatic playoff series when they kick off a three-game set at Nationals Park.
Though both rosters are still chock full of players involved in last October's back-and-forth series, the series-opening pitching matchup will pit Washington newcomer Dan Haren against Cardinals youngster Shelby Miller -- neither of whom pitched in the NLDS.
Haren, who missed the playoffs altogether as a member of the Angels in 2012, is still trying to settle in with his new club. The right-hander is 1-2 with an unsightly 8.10 ERA and hasn't lasted longer than five innings in any of his first three outings.
"I feel good, so it's just a matter of translating to good numbers out there," said Haren, who signed a one-year, $13 million deal with Washington this offseason. "Baseball is a crazy game. As bad as it is going now, it can change in an instant. I just have to remain positive."
Remaining positive isn't something Miller should have any problems with, despite entering Monday's tilt coming off his first Major League loss.
The 22-year-old righty allowed just two runs Wednesday against the Pirates, but he was saddled with the hard-luck loss as the Cardinals were shut out. Even with the defeat, Miller is 2-1 with a 1.96 ERA in his first season as a Major League starter. He also tossed six one-hit, shutout innings in his lone start in 2012, giving him a 1.48 ERA in his four career starts.
"You've got to tip your hat to Miller," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said after his club faced Miller for the first time. "You saw why the numbers are what they are. We thought we had him in a place where we might be able to make him move, and he collected himself. That fastball showed up, that sharp breaking ball showed up and he held us at bay for quite a period of time without striking anything really hard."
Speaking of the breaking ball, that's something Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty is hoping Haren will work back into his arsenal sooner rather than later. Although Haren has been a top-end starter in the past with the Athletics, D-backs and Angels, he has struggled to settle into his role in the rotation behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann.
"When you go and try to fit in, you know the other four guys are really good," McCatty said. "They throw harder, but he is pressing to fit in. He would talk afterward about the way he is pitching -- using more fastballs than cutters. He hasn't used his curveball as much as he has in the past. It's almost like he is trying to show somebody something. Be who you are."
And what better time for the three-time All-Star to show his new teammates exactly who he is than against the team that ended their postseason run a season ago.
Cardinals: Beltran finding power stroke
Right fielder Carlos Beltran has been on a tear of late, hitting a home run in three of his past four games.
After hitting just one homer in his first 14 games, Beltran has homered thrice while also raising his batting average from .227 to .283, as the slugger is hitting .381 (8-for-21) with two homers and five RBIs lifetime against Haren, including the postseason.
"Carlos is in a very good place right now," manager Mike Matheny said.
Nationals: Rendon looking for first big league hit
Nationals third baseman and top prospect Anthony Rendon made his Major League debut Sunday, going 0-for-4 in Washington's shutout loss to the Mets.
The plan is for Rendon to remain with the Nats until regular starter Ryan Zimmerman returns from his stint on the 15-day disabled list due to a strained left hamstring.
"We'll evaluate [him] at the big league level," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said, "and [manager] Davey [Johnson] is never afraid to give a young player a chance and to play him. He has never been afraid to do that. As an organization, we have never been afraid to do that."
The No. 6 overall pick in the 2011 Draft, Rendon was hitting .292 with a pair of homers and seven RBIs in 14 games this season with Double-A Harrisburg. In 13 Spring Training games with the Nats, he hit .375 (12-for-32) with four homers and 11 RBIs.
"We get a guy who is a natural third baseman, who will defend," Rizzo said. "He had a good Spring Training and is having a good start to the season. It will be a chance to perform at the big league level."
• No active player on the Nationals' roster has ever faced Miller in a regular-season contest.
• Haren, originally drafted by the Cardinals in the second round of the 2001 Draft, is 4-0 all time against the Redbirds with a 3.65 ERA.