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Previewing the Washington Nationals’ Potential Playoff Opponents: Fan’s Take

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The Washington Nationals are playing a different game on Thursday and Friday unlike any other they have encountered this season; the waiting game.

Thanks to having the National League's best record, the Nationals hold the distinction of awaiting the winner of Friday's first ever Wild Card playoff game between the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals. Both teams present unique challenges for the Nationals and have proven to be formidable foes in 2012.

The Braves and Cardinals will each turn to dominant right-handers, as Kris Medlen and Kyle Lohse will face off with a Division Series date with the Nationals awarded to the winner. The logic in pitching their most productive pitchers here makes sense, since neither team can worry about their next round rotation if they are unsuccessful in defeating their Friday opponent.

Washington can take some comfort in knowing that they would not likely face Medlen until Game 4 if Atlanta advances. Medlen has not only been dominant against Washington all season, but the entire league has struggled against the right-hander, who has posted a 10-1 record and 1.57 ERA. In his two starts against the Nationals, Medlen has surrendered just two runs in his 14 innings of work while striking out 20 batters.

So, with their opponent still undecided, who would the Nationals fare better against in the Division Series? The fact that these types of topics are up for debate is a far cry from where this franchise has been for decades.

Here is a match-up comparison for the Nationals against both teams.

Washington Nationals vs. Atlanta Braves

Projected Rotation Comparison

Gio Gonzalez vs. Tim Hudson

Jordan Zimmermann vs. Tommy Hanson

Edwin Jackson vs. Mike Minor

Ross Detwilier vs. Kris Medlen

Summary

The Nationals hold a 10-8 season series advantage against Atlanta, outscoring the Braves 84-69. In comparing the team's overall performance, the Nationals lead the Braves in ten statistical batting categories, compared to six for the Braves. On the pitching side of the ledger, the statistical advantage is more in favor of Washington, with six of the ten categories weighted on the Nationals' side.

Both teams boast solid rotations and deep bullpens; perhaps each representing the best in the National League. Game 1 presents a tremendous opportunity for the Nationals to ride the strong arm of Gio Gonzalez and win the opening road game. Atlanta has struggled with team batting average of .217 against the lefty Cy Young candidate while Washington has a combined .288 batting average against probable Game 1 starters Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson.

Prediction

With a strong chance of winning Game 1 and the possibility of not seeing Medlen until Game 4, the Nationals should be in a position to win this series in possibly three but more likely four games.

Washington Nationals vs. St. Louis Cardinals

Projected Rotation Comparison

Gio Gonzalez vs. Chris Carpenter

Jordan Zimmermann vs. Adam Wainwright

Edwin Jackson vs. Jake Westbrook

Ross Detwilier vs. Kyle Lohse

Summary

The Washington Nationals won the season series 4-3 against the Cardinals, with a scoring margin of just three runs (43-40) over the seven games.

The Cardinals bring to the series a potent offense, one that holds an 11-5 statistical edge for 2012 on Washington. When facing St. Louis on the field, the Nationals have had great success against each of the five potential starters in this series; hitting .333 or better against each. The Nationals have also had great success against Kyle Lohse (6.94 ERA in two starts), but will not likely face him until Game 4.

Pitching and defense are at a premium in the postseason and the Nationals' sixth-ranked defense could play a big role in limiting extra at-bats for the Cardinals. In a possible Game 1 match-up, the Cardinals will have difficulty in getting on base against Gio Gonzalez, with the Cardinals' bats combining for a .172 batting average.

Prediction

The Cardinals are no stranger to playoff success, as the defending World Series champions have a solid corps of talent that were key contributors to last season's title run. The wild card (pun partially intended) is the return of playoff-tested veteran Chris Carpenter. If the former Cy young award winner returns to the form that has made him one of baseball's best pitchers, this series could take a turn in favor of the Cardinals.Otherwise, like the Atlanta series the Nationals are well positioned to win Game 1 and take the series in four.

Outlook

As I stated early on, this team's presence in the playoffs has been long-awaited and highly anticipated. The 98-win season is now behind the team as it prepares for the second season.

The prospects of this team advancing to the World Series are high, although this odd Division Series schedule puts added pressure on the Nationals to at least split the opening two games. As a fan, there is not one team that I would rather see over the other, since both potential opponents have strengths that could be advantages in the brief five game series.

In the end, I remain steadfast in my belief that midnight is not yet ready to strike on this Cinderella season and the Nationals are built for a World Series appearance.

Scott Duhaime has been a devoted fan of the Washington Nationals (formerly Montreal Expos) for over 30 years.

Follow Scott on Twitter: @Scott_Duhaime

Sources:

Yahoo! Sports: Washington Nationals - roster and player statistics

Yahoo! Sports: Major League Baseball team statistics

Fox Sports: Nationals vs. Braves Team Head-to-Head Comparison

Fox Sports: Nationals vs. Cardinals Team Head-to-Head Comparison

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