10/04/12 4:23 PM ET
Braves or Cards? For Nats, it doesn't matter
NLDS opponent to be determined in Friday's NL Wild Card game
By Bill Ladson / MLB.com
Washington will have home-field advantage throughout the postseason, but -- unique to this season -- the Nats will open on the road for the first two games of the NLDS, and then have three at Nationals Park, if necessary. Game 1 is Sunday.
"[The playoffs are] where the good teams are," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "There is really not a weak team. Anyone we play, we have to play our best baseball to win. That's what we'll look to do. ... I'm just happy we are in the playoffs, and we're ready to compete against whoever we have to play. Hopefully, we'll continue to play the way we have been playing all year. "
It hasn't been easy trying to beat the Braves and Cardinals. The Nationals are a combined 14-11 against both teams. The last time the Nationals faced the Braves was Sept. 14-16, and the Braves ended up sweeping the three-game series. Washington's offense went south and the team never had a late-inning lead.
And if the game is close, the Nationals can only hope they don't face Atlanta's tough bullpen, led by Craig Kimbrel, who had 42 saves and a miniscule 1.01 ERA.
"The Braves' bullpen is tough," said an NL scout. "I think the Nationals can handle Atlanta, but they just have to swing the bats and pitch as well. [Braves starter] Tim Hudson has to get out of that first inning. You get him early in the ballgame, you got him. The longer he stays in, he is tough after that."
Even Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa admitted recently that the Nationals haven't swung the bats well in recent weeks.
"We haven't been hitting as well as we have been the whole second half, but we also ran into some hot teams, teams that have been pitching well," he said. "I think as long as we just play our game, go out there and do what we do, not look too far ahead, look day to day to win a ballgame, we'll win."
To combat Atlanta's offense, Nationals manager Davey Johnson plans to start two left-handed pitchers -- Gio Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler -- in the first three games, and for a good reason. The Braves' hitters are more vulnerable against left-handed pitching.
Take outfielder Jason Heyward: He is hitting .300 against right-handed pitching, but just .224 against southpaws. Most of Chipper Jones' power comes from the left side of the plate. He hit four homers in 171 at-bats from the right side as opposed to 10 home runs from the left in 216 at-bats, so giving him lefties to face is key.
As for the Cardinals, the Nationals have proven they can hit St. Louis pitching, scoring 41 runs in seven games, but keep in mind that St. Louis also scored 36 runs in its last five games against Washington. If the Nationals play the Cardinals, Johnson plans to start right-handers in two out of the first three games. Gonzalez will still get Game 1, and Jordan Zimmermann will start Game 2 of either series, but righty Edwin Jackson would toe the rubber in Game 3 instead of Detwiler, since the Cardinals hit better against left-handed pitching.
But from a talent standpoint, the NL scout believes the Nationals are better.
"I like the Nationals better against the Cardinals," said the scout. "I think the pitching situation against the Cardinals is just as good as the Braves. I think the Nationals can handle the Cardinals. If you are playing by the percentages, it boils down to the talent. The Nationals have more talent than they do. That's what I'm basing it on.
"The Cardinals are still scoring runs without Albert Pujols. Every position player on the Cardinals had to step up. They probably played a little differently. I thought they did a good job, overall."
No matter who they play in the Division Series, the Nationals expect the matchup to be tough.
"When St. Louis came in here, we beat up on them pretty good. We go there, they put their best foot forward in a pennant race, and they beat up on us pretty good," said Nationals infielder Mark DeRosa. "Atlanta is a team we respect. ... They played great baseball. ... I don't know if there is a situation where we necessarily match up the best against a certain team. It's going to be up to us to play well, like we have been doing all year."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.