Tonight, the Washington Nationals will find out who their opponent will be in the 2012 NLDS. The Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals are facing off in the first National League Wild Card game.
This year there was a significant advantage in winning your division a opposed to being a Wild Card. You were guaranteed a spot in the best-of-five round. There was an added bonus for the Nationals when they beat out the Cincinnati Reds for the top record in the league: they get to play the winner. I mentioned on Twitter why I thought resting Gio Gonzalez was beneficial to the Nationals. You would be guaranteed to have him in Game 1 and you would have him on regular rest a second time in the series of you needed him.
For the Braves and Cardinals, today is a Game 7. They are pitching their most successful regular season pitchers. Kyle Lohse for the Cardinals and Kris Medlen for the Braves. This means that on regular rest the earliest you would see them would be in Game 3. That means in a long series, the Nationals may still only see the other team’s ace only once.
Now this is merely an advantage. This by no means guarantees Washington the series. These are still playoff-calibre teams. They are both more than just one pitcher and the Cardinals especially have an ace in the hole in Chris Carpenter should they get through the Braves. Atlanta has Tim Hudson who has some postseason experience as well among others.
So not only do these teams need to win one last game to make the NLDS, they start that series without their most reliable regular season pitcher. For a team lacking in playoff experience, every little edge can make the difference. However, the Nationals also have to deal with having an extra day off. After a long season, with some significant players nursing injuries that is of course welcome, but at the same time the reality is these players are not used to multiple days off in the midst of a season.