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Two years ago, the Washington Nationals had the best record and home field advantage throughout the postseason. They were the favorites to make it to the World Series and even win it.
Then they were outscored by 16 runs and posted a 6.14 ERA against the St. Louis Cardinals. They went from one out and one strike away from advancing to a disappointment hangover that lingered into last season when the Nationals won 86 games aided by a surge that came way too late.
Now the Nationals are back and they’re playing the team that won the World Series in their place, the San Francisco Giants. The series starts Friday afternoon in Washington, pitting a young team looking to reach those lofty expectations against an opponent that has been tested immensely and passed each challenge in two championship runs.
Like the Nationals, the Giants struggled last season with a 76-win season continuing their quirky trend in odd and even-numbered years. The last two even-numbered years have seen the Giants win World Series titles while the last two odd-numbered years have seen them miss the playoffs.
It is an odd quirk but what it is not odd is how the teams reached this point.
The Nationals did what they were supposed to last year and that is win the NL East. Two years ago, Stephen Strasburg was on an innings limit but this year the restrictions have been lifted and he will be able to make the start in Game One
Last year Strasburg was 8-9 with a 3.00 ERA in 183 innings. This year, Strasburg increased his innings to 215 and was 14-10 with a 3.14 ERA and ended this season by going 6-1 with a 1.69 ERA over his last nine starts.
The Giants made it to this game with a dominating 8-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the wild card game on Wednesday. Madison Bumgarner continued being the ace with a four-hitter and Brandon Crawford became the first shortstop to hit a grand slam in a postseason game.
Jake Peavy will get the start for the Giants after winning a ring for the Red Sox last season. Peavy made three postseason starts and had a 7.10 ERA for the Red Sox. He was 1-9 with Boston but 6-4 with a 2.17 ERA in 10 starts following the trade and down the stretch Peavy was 3-0 with a 1.44 ERA in his last five starts.
Peavy and the Giants will have a tough challenge as the Nationals were tied with Pittsburgh for the most home wins and won the last 14 games started by their normal rotation of Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmerman, who pitched a no-hitter in the regular season finale.
Using Strasburg is not the only chance at redemption for the Nationals. Bryce Harper was a .130 hitter and struck out eight times two years ago. He has missed 104 games due to injuries the last two years and finished this season by hitting .273 with 13 home runs and 32 RBI.
The Nationals have an interesting situation with Ryan Zimmerman, who is able to play after missing the most of final two months with a hamstring injury while enduring a season that limited him to 61 games. He played eight games in September, manning left field and first base since the Nationals are uncomfortable with all the movements required at third base and how it would impact the hamstring.
With Zimmerman unable to play third, Anthony Rendon emerged as a big threat by hitting .287 with 21 home runs and 83 RBI. He batted .309 with eight home runs and 26 RBI while hitting over .300 in three months this season.
The Giants return six of their position players from the last World Series run and have succeeded immensely on the road in their postseasons. They have won their last four road playoff games and 13 of 17 since 2010.
“Once we get here, we know it’s a new season,” Crawford told to reporters. “I think we kind of proved in 2012 and 2010 that anything can happen.”
A young team managed by one of their more prominent ex-players stands in the way. To get to the next round, Bruce Bochy will match wits and strategy with first-year manager Matt Williams, who was on the 1989 NL champions in San Francisco, hit 43 home runs in 1994 and then was traded to Cleveland for Jeff Kent in 1997.
The Nationals have been favored before and now they get a second crack at getting to the next round. San Francisco is a really seasoned postseason team and more than willing to make the Nationals wait another year for that long playoff run.
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