|How will young Bryce Harper react to the postseason spotlight? (AP)|
The Nationals will win the World Series. It is the year of the Cinderella, after all.
By now, they are the forgotten Cinderella. They've played so well, and for so long, folks forget that nobody expected them to be here.
The Nats are so well-regarded now that nobody mentions them alongside the A's and Orioles, two upstarts that started OK but finished better.
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But remember, the Nats were great from start to finish. They played better, and more consistently, than anyone else.
Sure, it's a loss that their most talented pitcher Stephen Strasburg won't pitch in the postseason. But the rotation still may be better than anyone else's. Nats general manager Mike Rizzo aimed to build around pitching and defense, and he carried out that plan magnificently.
The Nats are the first Washington-based baseball team to reach the postseason since 1933. But this was no fluke.
The Orioles and A's are marvelous stories. But you still wonder how they got here. With the Nats, it is no mystery.
The slogan writers will have you believe it's their NATITUDE. But people around baseball understand that's just a fun bunch of bunk.
They were in first almost from start to finish, not because they had any special aura or mojo or chemistry -- though, they may have all those things, too. It's pretty simple. On talent, they are tops.
Their rotation is still maybe the best in the league, even without the wunderkind Strasburg. Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, Edwin Jackson, Ross Detwiler and maybe even the just-remembered John Lannan makes a very solid quintet.
The bullpen, for years a strength, got better with the return of closer Drew Storen. Overall, the Nats' team ERA was 3.33, best in the NL.
Look around the field. They have a solid to very good player at every position. First baseman Adam LaRoche is their MVP among everyday players, but Ryan Zimmerman is a star, and so is Ian Desmond.
To view Bryce Harper as only a future star would be to underestimate him. Turns out the high school catcher solved the Nats' long-running center field issue. Turns out, too, he's blessed with awesome speed to go with his extraordinary power.
The Nats weathered the season-ending injury to their fine young starting catcher Wilson Ramos, and injuries to three more catchers. They weathered an early injury to their closer Drew Storen, then a meltdown by replacement closer Henry Rodriguez. They weathered the injuries to Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Jayson Werth.
They don't have a ton of experience. But they showed their fortitude, if not their Natitude, with all the issues they overcame. The loss of Strasburg is just one more issue to overcome, and they will.
Wild Card Round
Orioles vs. Rangers: Texas has stopped playing like you'd expect, but there'll be nothing like a home crowd in an elimination game to get them going. Yu Darvish gives them a big edge, as the Orioles are likely to empty their pen here. Buck Showalter has done a masterful job with his relief crew and he'd like nothing more than to beat the Rangers after almost beating the Yankees. Still, a very tough assignment for the O's. Texas, 8-5
Cardinals vs. Braves: In 23 straight games, the Braves have won Kris Medlen's starts. Hard to go against them now, especially at home. But world champion St. Louis is also a tough team to pick against. The Cardinals, as always, are a greater threat than anyone thinks. And their own starter Kyle Lohse lost only three games all year, and all by one run. Still, that doesn't beat 23 to nothing. Braves, 3-2
Rangers vs. Yankees: New York may have gained an extra edge by the way it fought off the Orioles to win an AL East it nearly blew, but let's not forget it closed with Toronto and Boston. The Yankees have experience in abundance, not only from this year but years past. Their lineup is as good as anyone's and their rotation is over-maligned. It's better than the 2009 version, as Hiroki Kuroda is a major upgrade over A.J. Burnett (or at least the Yankees' A.J. Burnett). Yankees in 5
Tigers vs. A's: Detroit has all the elements to go far -- an ace, a top closer, an excellent leadoff hitter and a great middle of the order, anchored by Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. But it barely won baseball's weakest division and generally didn't play well for 90 percent of the season. They also have to be concerned about the health of No. 2 pitcher Max Scherzer. A's in 5
Braves vs. Nats: This will be a tough and hard-fought battle, just like the season. The Braves have a very nice team, with lots of key contributors in Chipper Jones' final year. Atlanta's disadvantage is that Medlen only gets to start once -- though, some might point out, it's one more than Strasburg. Nats in 5
Reds vs. Giants: San Francisco has a lot of terrific pitchers, and it played even better once Melky Cabrera was suspended. But the Reds are being overlooked nationally. They have a very deep and balanced team with a rotation and bullpen to match San Francisco's, with just a bit more firepower. Reds in 5
A's vs. Yankees: In a replay of some great playoff series from just more than a decade ago, the A's magic may last just a bit longer. The Yankees haven't gotten enough of a look at all these fine anonymous A's pitchers. A's in 7
Reds vs. Nats: The Reds have a real shot to win it all (especially since nobody is picking them) with strength throughout the lineup, rotation and bullpen. It's a very well-designed team. But the Nats are almost at full strength now (except for Strasburg and Ramos). Nats in 7
A's vs. Nats. The A's are the hottest team in baseball, and who knows, maybe they do pull off another few miracles. But it seems like a stretch to think this band of no-names and rookie starters can win a World Series. In comparison, anyway, the Nats look downright grizzled. Nats in 7