WASHINGTON -- So, this is what is must have been like. This is what it must have felt like to be the teams the Nationals lost to in the playoffs over the years when Washington couldn't get hits, score runs, make the defensive plays they had made all year or trust their bullpen.
For years, the Nationals invented new ways to fail on the postseason stage. But now, the shoe is on the other foot and they are the team playing as close to flawless as baseball can be played. They aren't making mistakes while the Cardinals are tumbling down a mountain towards elimination.
After winning Game 3 by the score of 8-1 on Monday night, the Nats hold a 3-0 advantage in the NLCS which means they only have to win one of the next four games and they are World Series-bound. They will have two opportunities at home with both Tuesday and Wednesday's games set for Washington. Wednesday's might not even be necessary.
This year is just different for these Nats and there was one moment during Monday's game that served as a specific reminder of that. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Ryan Zimmerman doubled home a run to put the Nationals up 6-0. That was the same lead they had in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS against these very same Cardinals. This time, they didn't blow it. They piled on and didn't look back.
Really, this enitre series has felt like another game in that infamous NLDS. Recall, if you can, Game 3 of that series when things shifted to Washington. There was a bizarre scheduling quirk that year where the Nats, despite having home field advantage, didn't play a home game until Game 3. They were on the road for the first two and split them before returning to D.C. for the next three games.
That Game 3 was the first home MLB postseason game for a Washington team in 79 years. Fans who wanted to be part of history packed the stadium in a sellout that required standing room only tickets.
But what happened next was pure, uncut dejection. The Nats were obliterated 8-0 to go down 2-1 in the series. All those fans showed up to the park and had absolutely nothing to cheer for the entire day. Not a single run, or even a juncture in the game where it seemed like a win was possible.
Now, think about how this series has gone. How many moments in these three games have Cardinals fans been able to cheer for? They were shut out in Game 1, they scored one run in Game 2 and one run in Game 3. The two plays they scored on were both at a time when the Cardinals were down multiple runs. And both times they only scored because of a Nationals defensive mistake.
This series so far has been a one-sided fight where the Cardinals are taking beatings over and over and rarely punching back. The Nationals know what that feels like and are happy to be on the other end.
These three wins have been business-like and, if you ask the players, there is one main reason for that.
"Our starting pitching, I think it just sets the tone for everything in the series. It lets our offensive guys [relax], it gives them a chance to take a deep breath and maybe work the count," reliever Sean Doolittle said.
"Like tonight, they were able to get something going the second time through the lineup. It lets them relax and it keeps the pressure on them. As bullpen guys, you see what they're doing to attack hitters. They're constantly ahead in counts, they're working quick, they're in a rhythm; you feed off that too as a bullpen guy. You want to get in there and do the exact same thing. They've put us in a really good spot in this series."
After Stephen Strasburg's seven-inning gem on Monday, Nationals starters have now thrown 21 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run in the NLCS. They have struck out 28 batters and issued only three walks.
It has been pitching and also defense. Though the Cardinals have technically capitalized on two defensive blunders - a Michael A. Taylor misjudged ball in Game 2 and a Juan Soto throwing error in Game 3 - the Nationals have otherwise played mistake-free baseball.
"Starting pitching and play good defense. If you do those two things in the playoffs, I think you're going to have decent success," outfielder Adam Eaton said.
"Our starting pitching has been unbelievable and we've played good defense," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.
"We're just trying to do the little things right, treat it as a normal game and play like we've played for the last few months. It's hard to do sometimes, but we've really tried as best we can to do it."
The Nationals' defense has also included some miraculous plays, the types that make Cardinals players and their fans throw their hands up in disbelief. Zimmerman had a diving grab in Game 1 in St. Louis and Anthony Rendon had a fantastic stop at third in Game 3 to rob Paul DeJong of a hit.
The Nats have become that team that frustrates opponents by acing the finer details of the game. It's an unusual role for them at this stage of the season.
But what else is new? These clearly aren't the Nationals old. They have bucked trends of team history all season by coming back in a pennant race, by making the playoffs as a Wild Card team, by winning a Wild Card game and then a do-or-die NLDS Game 5. They don't have Bryce Harper and their bullpen is bad on paper when in years past it was good on paper, just when it counted most.
Everything this year has been different. And that trend has continued with the casual nature of the three wins that now have them on the cusp of a World Series berth.
Unless the baseball gods are setting us all up for something extraordinary, there is no reason to believe they won't keep it rolling. These Nationals aren't recognizable to those who have watched them over the years, but it keeps working. Don't tell anyone. Just go with it.
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