WASHINGTON -- The Nationals will take the field on Thursday at risk of their season coming to an end.
After losing Game 3, 8-0, to the Cardinals on Wednesday and falling behind, 2-1, in the National League Division Series, Washington must either win Game 4 or watch its first winning campaign come to an early end despite all the success it enjoyed while putting up the best record in the Majors during the regular season.
"We've been a really good team all year," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "We've got one game to play tomorrow, one game to win. Past that, you can't look at it any different way."
"We know what we've got to do. We've got our backs up against the wall now," added first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "It's a must-win."
So what do the Nats have to do to extend this series to a full five games and keep their World Series hopes alive?
1. Score early
The Nationals have scored two runs before the fifth inning through the first three games of the series. They scored 351 of their 731 regular-season runs in the first through the fourth innings; they can't force their starting pitchers to pitch from behind or in tie games if they hope to advance to the NL Championship Series.
The Cards, aggressive early, have scored 13 runs before the fifth inning throughout this series. Taking a page out of St. Louis' book might not be a bad idea for Washington.
"They're not waiting around for you to get strike one. They're coming out and jumping on pitches," Edwin Jackson, Wednesday's starter, said. "They've been doing it pretty much the last few games we've played them. You expect them to be aggressive. It's just a matter of executing pitches."
2. Start strong
At the same time, it won't do the Nats any good to put up runs early if the starting pitchers aren't doing their job. In Game 1, Gio Gonzalez walked seven batters in five innings, Jordan Zimmermann was chased after three innings in Game 2 and Jackson put Washington in an early hole it couldn't escape. That simply can't happen to Ross Detwiler in Game 4 or Gonzalez in Game 5.
"If you get behind early, sometimes it takes the wind out of your sails," manager Davey Johnson said. "That's been our strength all year. These young guys have pitched great all year. [We] need a couple more good-pitched games this series."
3. Get the ball to Clippard and Storen
The only pitchers on Washington's staff to pitch a full inning without giving up a run this series have been setup man Tyler Clippard and closer Drew Storen. If Detwiler can pitch deep into his game -- something Gonzalez, Zimmermann and Jackson weren't able to do -- and put the game in the hands of Clippard and Storen, the Nationals will be in much better shape. Trying to survive a long game inning by inning against the Cardinals' potent lineup and their suddenly dominant relief corps isn't exactly a recipe for success.
4. Set the table for Desmond
Ian Desmond went 3-for-4 with a double on Wednesday, and he's 7-for-12 in the series, but he's yet to step to the plate with a runner on second or third base. Desmond has put two within striking distance, sending a runner from first to third twice in Washington's Game 1 victory, but the player who appears most capable of driving in runs hasn't had any opportunities to do so.
Desmond could be the offensive catalyst the Nats need in a close game, but the hitters in front of him need to avoid rally-killing outs before that can happen.
"You go out from the first pitch and be aggressive. We know they are," LaRoche said. "We know what their hitters are doing, up there trying to drive something. It's not a bunt, hit-and-run team. Those guys are trying to do some damage. We need to fire back with the same thing."
5. Don't think about elimination
Although the win-or-go-home concept might inspire some teams, taking on added pressure seems like a bad idea for such a young Nationals club. Johnson has pointed to the team's inexperience several times, and some of the difficulties hitting with runners in scoring position (3-for-27 for the series) might be attributed to players trying too hard to spark a big rally.
Instead, the Nats would be well advised to remember how they got to the playoffs -- not how they find themselves on the brink of elimination.
"I believe in this team. I believe in these guys. We've been here all year," Werth said. "Over a 162-game season, we were the best team in baseball. I still feel that way."