Game 1 may be everything for the Washington Nationals.
The Nats can't trail the best-of-five National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, which begins at Nationals Park Oct. 7. Their ace, Max Scherzer, faces Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, and relying on starters Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzales to rally past an opening loss in the next two games may be too much.
Take the first game, and the Nats might sweep the Dodgers. But splitting the first two games in Washington gives Los Angeles a big advantage, because the Dodgers were a solid 53-28 at home versus 38-43 on the road this season. Letting Kershaw own Washington from the start is a bad omen.
Certainly, Nationals Park will be a raucous atmosphere, especially thanks to late-afternoon starts that won't drain the crowd toward the end of the game when the Metro closes at midnight. Everyone will stay until the end for these games. It may be a relatively young baseball town after a 34-year absence before the Nats moved from Montreal in 2005, but the team has been around long enough and reached the playoffs twice to educate the crowd into becoming an edge. They won't be doing "The Wave" while the team tries to score.
The Nats, a torn-and-tattered bunch that look more like the Revolutionary War drum-and-fife corps, can win their first playoff series in Washington after losing to San Francisco in four games in 2014 and St. Louis in five games in 2012. Washington fell 0-2 to San Francisco, including a back-breaking 18-inning loss in Game 2, and never recovered. While the Nats beat the Cardinals in the opener, they lost the next two before later allowing four runs in the ninth inning of the deciding game to exit abruptly. Nats fans are still haunted by that loss.
Gaining the series lead is vital for confidence. While Washington won 95 games, second only to Chicago's 103, the Nats slumped at the season's end because of injuries. Fortunately, right fielder Bryce Harper's thumb and second baseman Daniel Murphy's buttocks seem healed, though starter Stephen Strasburg (elbow) and catcher Wilson Ramos (knee) are out.
Still, the lineup looks better prepared after two previous postseasons when it was unable to scratch out a run in close games. And this figures to be a series of close games, despite the Nats boasting five players with at least 20 homers (Ramos was the sixth). Previous Nats teams hit well, though, until disappearing in the postseason. Beating Kershaw would be a major confidence boost.
Since 2011, Kershaw has garnered three Cy Young awards and an NL Most Valuable Player award. Missing 75 days this season with a herniated disc didn't stop him from finishing 12-4 with a 1.69 ERA. Even more amazing is his 15.6 strikeouts to 1 walk ratio. Nats outfielder Jayson Werth can foul off 3-2 counts all day, but he's not getting walked that often against Kershaw.
Amazingly, Kershaw has been mortal in three postseasons with a 4.59 ERA. But he has been tough on the Nats, allowing a .230 average against with 104 strikeouts in 326 at-bats. Washington must avoid strikeouts, scatter some hits and wait for a big inning against him.
If Washington can win an expected low-scoring game against Kershaw, it can quickly oust Los Angeles. Otherwise, look for a grinding series.