The Nationals put a bow on their 2016 regular season Sunday afternoon with a 10-7 win over the Marlins, a victory orchestrated by a versatile effort from their offense. Now it's time to turn the page for what the Nats have waited two years for, their return to the playoffs. Now the real fun starts.
The Nats will take four days off before hosting the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the NL Division Series on Friday. Winners of 95 games and the NL East division, the Nationals have been through plenty to arrive here and they feel ready for what lies ahead.
"It’s a lot of work to be able to get to this point and get the opportunity to go to the playoffs, so I’m looking forward to it," shortstop Danny Espinosa said. "I know as a team we’re really looking forward to it. We’ve come up short a couple of times and we want to get past that and go a lot further.”
“We came out here to be consistent, and this was the goal: To win the division. We did it. We got home field advantage against the Dodgers," starter Max Scherzer said.
"Now the fun begins. Look, you’ve got to come out here and play your best baseball now. I know everybody’s got aches and pains and injuries and this and that, but you’ve got to rise above it and find a way to get it done.”
The four-day layoff is a challenge in its own right. On one hand, it's coming at a perfect time with several key players nursing injuries. Daniel Murphy (buttock strain), Jayson Werth (back tightness), Bryce Harper (sore left thumb) and Ryan Zimmerman (calf soreness) can all use the rest.
But those four days also put players at jeopardy of losing their rhythm. They need to do their best to remain sharp before going up against Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher in baseball.
Manager Dusty Baker described his plan to navigate the next four days while they wait to take on the Dodgers:
"We'll be off tomorrow. That's a rest day. They earned it and deserve it. Then, guys will come in every day and get treatment. We'll have batting practice and fielding practice like we always do. We'll maybe go over some fundamentals and take a couple infield and outfield drills, just to tighten things up in our game. I'm not going to work them to death, but you certainly don't want them to rust up in the meantime."
It's not an easy thing to do, to balance both priorities. But the Nats aren't worried the time off will affect them negatively.
"I feel like we came out of the All-Star break pretty well, so this isn't unique," second baseman Daniel Murphy said.
"We've been there before. [Jayson Werth has] been here before, Dusty's been here many times. We'll take tomorrow off, enjoy our families. It's been a race here, 162 games. I'm sure guys need to throw, we'll take some swings and some ground balls and get ready for Friday."
“It’ll be fine," Espinosa said. "Take a day off tomorrow. Lift and stuff on Tuesday. Kind of treat it like somewhat of an All-Star break as far as getting your rest and getting whatever treatment you need to get done. We’ll keep our timing, face our pitchers, get BP and everything."
The Nats and Dodgers will have a brief respite, then it's on. They will go at it in a five-game series where the smallest of moments can loom large. Sharpness will be key when minor mistakes can turn a series.
Scherzer described the mindset he feels is necessary when entering the postseason.
“That's the notion: 'Hey, this is going to be a big moment, dial it back.' I tried doing that making my first playoff start, going out in New York [City] against the Yankees and tried to dial it back. And I walked [two] in the first inning," he said.
"It doesn’t work. You’ve got to use the adrenaline and use the emotion of the game to your advantage. You’ve got to go out there and be aggressive and appreciate everything that’s going on. You don’t shy away from this moment. You’ve got to rise to it. And you’ve got to let the atmosphere take you there as well. I’m happy that we have home field advantage and have the home crowd behind me. It’s going to be a heck of an experience.”
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