National League Playoffs: Can Washington Win the Arms Race?

The Nats are MLB's hottest team, but will they flame out against the Cardinals or Dodgers?

Washington's Jordan Zimmermann is doused with water after pitching a no-hitter against the Miami Marlins. Credit: The Washington Post

Bleary-eyed thanks to last night's extra-innings AL Wild Card affair? Join the club. But there's no rest for the weary, because tonight, the Senior Circuit steps to the plate.

This year's crop of National League playoff participants is a fairly familiar one, since all five of these teams have made it to the postseason at least once in the past two years (and the defending NL champion St. Louis Cardinals got there twice). But this time out, it's the Washington Nationals who are coming in as the team to beat. Will there be a World Series in the nation's capital for the first time since 1933? Or will one of the other four NL teams find a way to catch fire, overcome their flaws and snag the pennant?

Wild Card Game: San Francisco Giants vs. Pittsburgh Pirates
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle got a lot of stick for starting Gerrit Cole against the Reds on Sunday as part of the Bucs' unsuccessful last-ditch attempt to win the NL Central division, thus rendering the flame-throwing pitcher unavailable for tonight's one-and-done contest with the Giants.

Instead, Hurdle's giving the ball to 31-year-old reclamation project Edinson Volquez (13-7, 3.04 ERA), who's enjoying his best year since winning 17 games in 2008, and who gave up only six earned runs in five September starts. The Giants, to absolutely no one's surprise, are going with their ace Madison Bumgarner (18-10, 2.98), who's one of the best young hurlers in the league – but who also gave up five earned runs in only four innings during his lone start against the Bucs this year. The Pirates are 51-30 at home this year, and the rowdy PNC crowd (which rattled Johnny Cueto badly during 2013's Wild Card play-in) might well be a deciding factor in this showdown. Prediction: Pirates

NLDS: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (Starts October 3)
The Dodgers want payback for last year's NL Championship Series, which they lost in six games to the Cards. But while the 2014 Dodgers are arguably a better team than last year's model (and the 2014 Cards are weaker than their 2013 pennant-winning squad), their starting rotation beyond Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke is something the late Ed Wood might have characterized as "a nightmare of horror."

Still, Kershaw and Greinke and two days of, er, stanky should be sufficient to take a five-game series, so long as the Cardinals don't light Kershaw up the way they did in last year's NLCS Game 6, and so long as Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly can stay the hell out of his own way. In any case, the Game 1 matchup between Kershaw (21-3, 1.77) and Adam Wainwright (20-9, 2.38) should be one for the ages. Prediction: Dodgers in 5

NLDS: Pittsburgh Pirates/San Francisco Giants vs. Washington Nationals (Starts October 3)
Jordan Zimmermann's Game 162 no-hitter (and the spectacular Steven Souza catch that saved it) seemed a most appropriate way to cap this season for the Nats, who enter playoffs as not only the hottest team in baseball, but also the one with the fewest weaknesses.

When your biggest problem is deciding whether to leave Tanner Roark or Gio Gonzalez out of a playoff rotation that already includes Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister, you're clearly operating from a place of strength. The Pirates or Giants will be coming into this gunfight short at least a couple of bullets. Prediction: Nationals in 4