The NLDS matchup between the Washington Nationals and the St. Louis Cardinals is a matchup of franchises with very different histories. The Nationals are in the playoffs for the first time since 1981, when the franchise was in Montreal, and it's the first playoff series for a Washington, D.C., team since 1933.
Meanwhile, the defending World Series Champion Cardinals are making their third playoff appearance in four years.
After finishing one game under .500 in 2011, the Nationals were a popular pick to earn their first winning record in Washington behind their starting pitching. Pundits were projecting a full season of Stephen Strasburg, as well as the offseason acquisitions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to join returning starters Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann to form one of the best pitching staffs in the league. The questions surrounded the offense, and whether Washington had enough of it to contend for a division title with the five-time defending N.L. East champion Philadelphia Phillies, and new-look Miami Marlins, and the always competitive Atlanta Braves.
However, the Phillies finally began to show their age, and the Marlins' makeover blew up into disaster as the Nationals led the division from start to finish. While Washington didn't have a single dominant offensive player, they had a balanced attack that saw seven players finish with double-digit home runs. Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth had bounce-back seasons, and a surprising power surge from Ian Desmond joined expected contributions from Ryan Zimmerman and a solid rookie debut from top prospect Bryce Harper.
Meanwhile, the offseason storyline for the Cardinals was one of loss. Megastar Albert Pujols left St. Louis for Anaheim, and longtime manager Tony LaRussa rode a World Series championship off into retirement. However, first baseman Allen Craig teamed with Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, and Yadier Molina to maintain the Cardinals' potent offense. The Cardinals were also able to withstand a shoulder injury to star pitcher Chris Carpenter by getting an 18-win season out of Lance Lynn, as well as stellar seasons from veteran pitchers Kyle Lohse and Adam Wainwright.
St. Louis' 88 wins would not have gotten them into the playoffs in years past, but this year's addition of a second wildcard allowed the Cardinals to sneak into the postseason despite finishing six games behind Atlanta in the wildcard race. St. Louis then beat Atlanta in a one-game playoff Friday night to earn the right to play in the NLDS.
Perhaps the biggest storyline of the series is the status of Strasburg. The All-Star righty was shut down for the season Sept. 7, in a move designed to limit wear and tear on his rebuilt elbow. While the rotation of Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Detwiler and Jackson is still formidable, especially in a best-of-five series, the Nationals face scrutiny if it is perceived that a playoff loss could have been prevented by Strasburg's presence on the mound.
Washington has the home-field advantage and is the heavy favorite, but twice in the last six seasons St. Louis has rode an unorthodox playoff appearance to a World Series championship.