The Nationals do not yet know where Game 1 will take place, but they do know for certain that they will face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series beginning Oct. 7.
They have seven games remaining on their schedule and four off-days after that before their playoffs begin.
That's 11 full days to ponder their opponent, a Dodgers team that just happened to pummel them this season 5-1 in head-to-head games.
The Nats, though, see an evenly matched foe. Keep in mind that regular season records sometimes mean very little in the crapshoot that is October. The Mets, for instance, went 0-7 against the Cubs last year, only to sweep them out of the playoffs in the NLCS.
"I think we match up pretty good against them," manager Dusty Baker said of the Dodgers, a team he spent eight years with as a player.
"Anybody that’s gotten this far, there’s not much difference between the teams and talent. It just depends on who’s hot and who’s not and who gets the best pitching, who gets the most clutch, in particular two-out hits. Some of the challenges they present is they have a pile of a left-handed hitters and powerful left-handed hitters, and they hit the ball out of the ballpark. They got a good team. They got a good bullpen. We haven’t even seen [rookie pitcher Kenta] Maeda yet."
The Nats have almost two weeks to prepare for the Dodgers. But really, they have had them in mind for longer than that. Once the San Francisco Giants started slipping in the NL West race, L.A. emerged as the clear favorite to win the division.
"It will be a fun series," reliever Shawn Kelley said. "I think for a while now we've known it was going to be us and the Dodgers. Now it's just about are we going there or are they coming here first."
"First team we've gotta try to beat," center fielder Trea Turner said. "It's a matter of formulating a gameplan to beat those pitchers who have been really good all year. Especially, [Clayton] Kershaw now that he's back. Their lineup is deep. They've got a lot of veteran players and a good mix of young guys that have done it all year."
The Nationals enter Monday night 1 1/2 games ahead of the Dodgers. If they are to finish with the same record, the Dodgers will get home field advantage based on their head-to-head series record.
Baker offered a measured take on what home field advantage would mean to the Nats.
“It’s not necessary because you’ve seen sometimes the home field doesn’t really matter. It depends on who’s hot during that series," he said. "But sure, anytime I can get home field advantage, we’ll take it, especially because you don’t have to go back to the Coast twice. Let them come to us. Right now we have the lead over them and so there’s no sense giving it up. Sometimes it can be taken from you, but that’s up to us."
Baker said he plans to give some players rest during the final seven games of the regular season. He does not know yet whether Max Scherzer or Tanner Roark will be asked to pitch on short rest in the playoffs. He also said the team has not decided how they will handle the four-day layoff next week. They will hold at least one workout either at home or on the road, but whether fans or media will be permitted to attend has not been determined.
It's an inexact science, trying to keep players fresh but also sharp after a playoff spot has been secured. It's even harder to navigate through those four off-days without losing momentum. The Nats remember all too well back in 2014 when they finished the regular season winners of 17 of 22, only to fall flat offensively in the playoffs against the Giants.
Baker has to figure out the best way to handle the Nats this time and he is still determining the best course of action.
"It’s a thin line between playing a whole bunch and not playing enough," he said.
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