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Long time no see: Washington returns to postseason to face Cardinals

The District of Columbia hasn't seen a World Series title since Walter Johnson and the Senators defeated the New York Giants in 1924.

The Washington Nationals hope to change that, as the franchise returns to the postseason for the first time since 1981 on Sunday when they play Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

Of course, the last time this organization was in the playoffs it was known as the Montreal Expos. The Nationals, though, enter this year's postseason as the top seed in the National League after going 98-64 to win their first division title in 31 years.

Although the Nats finished 10 games better than the Cardinals, under the new format they will play the first two games of this best-of-five set on the road, then return for the final three at Nationals Park, marking D.C.'s first taste of playoff baseball since 1933.

Playing away from home should not bother Washington, which was an MLB-best 48-33 on the road this season.

Nationals brass took some heat when they shut down ace Stephen Strasburg in early September after he had reached his innings limit following his return from Tommy John surgery. Strasburg had gone 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and struck out 197 batters in 159 1/3 innings.

"Stephen���'s a huge part of this. We're not here without Stephen," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "He's the No. 1 on the team with the best record in baseball and the National League East champs. So he's a huge part of this thing that's going on here, and will be for a long time to come."

Even without Strasburg, though, the Nats are fine in the pitching department, as left- hander Gio Gonzalez won 21 games and struck out 201 batters and will start Game 1. Righty Jordan Zimmerman also had a fine season, going 12-8, after he was shut down last year because of an innings limit following elbow surgery.

Both had better ERAs (2.89 and 2.94) than Strasburg this season.

Gonzalez last pitched on Sept. 27 against the Phillies. He was scheduled to pitch this past Tuesday against Philadelphia, but after winning the NL East title the previous day, manager Davey Johnson decided to rest Gonzalez so he could be ready for the postseason.

"This is a learning curve for me, so I need to know how to prepare myself for something like this, Gonzalez said. "Someway, somehow, I'll find it and try to figure it out."

While phenom Bryce Harper gets most of the attention offensively, first baseman Adam LaRoche matched a career high with 100 RBI and he and the rest of the infield - Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa - combined for 100 homers.

Harper, though, burst on the scene for the Nationals on April 28 and never looked back, as he earned an All-Star berth, hit .270 with 22 home runs, drove in 59 runs and scored 98. He also stole 18 bases.

And oh yea, he's still two weeks away from turning 20.

"It's not how old I am. It's how I treat him every day," Johnson said. "And he doesn't want any special treatment. He wants to be treated just like everybody else."

From Sept. 1 through the end of the regular season, the left-handed-hitting Harper led all NL players in runs (27), and ranked in the top eight in the league in slugging percentage (third, .643), batting average (tied for fifth, .330) and on-base percentage (eighth, .400).

"He's pretty much got, in his mind, a bulletproof shield around him at all times," LaRoche said. "We see stuff every two or three days from him that's just like, `Wow. I haven't seen that in a long time.'"

Righty Tyler Clippard did an admirable job as the team's closer this season, as Drew Storen, who saved 43 games last year, recovered from elbow surgery. But, Clippard pitched to a 5.60 ERA in the second half of the season, making the decision easier for Johnson to hand the ninth-inning reins back to Storen.

"I feel physically better than I ever have before," Storen said."I feel like my stuff is better than it was last year. When you go in and have those operations, you never really know how it���s going to turn out. Fortunately for me, I got taken care of really well."

Sean Burnett is the Nats' top lefty setup man (4.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate and Craig Stammen is a reliable innings-eater.

While the Nationals are the prohibitive favorite in the National League, the Cardinals are perfectly fine with their role as underdogs.

St. Louis, of course, overcame a 9 1/2-game deficit last season to nab the NL wild card on the season's final day and parlayed that into the team's 11th World Series title.

The Cardinals were again heavy underdogs in Friday's one-game wild card playoff with the Atlanta Braves, but advanced with a 6-3 win with a little help from a questionable call.

With the Cards holding the three-run lead, Freddie Freeman walked to start the bottom of the eighth for Atlanta and David Ross lined a one-out single to center field.

Andrelton Simmons then lofted a pop up that fell in between shortstop Pete Kozma and Matt Holliday. Left field umpire Sam Holbrook inexplicably called a late infield fly, resulting in fans littering the field with debris.

Following an extended delay, Jason Motte entered from the bullpen and struck out Michael Bourn after walking a pinch-hitting McCann to load the bases.

Chipper Jones temporarily prolonged his career and the Braves' season by reaching on a broken-bat infield single with two outs. He was safe when second baseman Daniel Descalso's throw pulled Craig's foot off the bag. Freeman followed with a ground-rule double, but Dan Uggla grounded out to end the game.

Kyle Lohse (1-0) scattered six hits over 5 2/3 innings to pick up the first postseason win of his career.

Allen Craig continued his postseason prowess and ignited a three-run fourth inning with an RBI double, while Holliday smashed a solo homer.

It was a year of adjustments for the Cardinals, who went into this season with a new manager in Mike Matheny following the retirement of Tony La Russa, and without three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols, who bolted to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as a free agent.

St. Louis did not skip a beat, winning just two games less than last season, and still finished 88-74. Although, it wasn't quite the furious finish they needed last year, the Cardinals still won 12 of their final 16 games, but did not secure the second wild card spot until the second to last day of the season.

Carlos Beltran was brought into replace Pujols and actually put up about the same numbers, as he hit .269 with 32 home runs and 97 RBI. But, catcher Yadier Molina really shined and should finish among the leaders in MVP voting.

Already an all-world defender, Molina excelled at the plate, batting .315 with 22 home runs and 76 RBI.

The biggest reason the Cards might be in the playoffs could be Kozma, who filled in for injured Rafael Furcal and started the final 16 games for the team. Ten of his 22 hits were for extra bases, and he delivered an RBI in seven of the team's last 11 games.

"You always wonder how a kid's going to perform when you put him on a big stage," Matheny said. "And we put him on as big a stage as there was in the game [in September], and he rose to the challenge. I don't know, to be honest with you, what we would have done [without him]. We would have kept musical chairing it for a while with a couple of other players until we found somebody to take control. But, fortunately, Pete Kozma stepped up, took charge of the position."

St. Louis won't be hurt too bad with having Lohse throw the wild card game, as it still has former 20-game winner Adam Wainwright to fall back on in Game 1.

After missing all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery, Wainwright went 14-13 with a 3.94 ERA in 32 starts.

"You know, it's a long journey, recovering from Tommy John surgery," Wainwright said. "It was ups and downs this year but doesn't matter at this point. We are starting fresh. We are in the post-season. I learned a lot about myself as a competitor this year. And I'm excited about the opportunity."

He beat the Nationals in his final regular season start, holding them to a run and five hits in six innings. However, he failed to get out of the third inning in his previous outing against them, surrendering six runs in just 2 2/3 frames.

"I think the first time around, I was coming off six straight wins, I was pitching really well," Wainwright added. "Best I had all season probably in that stretch, and I had just a horrible game. And when your starting pitcher has a horrible game, your team is probably going to have a horrible game. The second time around, pitched a better game."

Unlike last year's bullpen situation under La Russa, the roles are a little more defined. One role that is the same, though, is the closer Motte, who may not look as impressive as some of the other top-notch closers in the league, but is just as reliable picked up every save for the Cardinals this season.

Right-hander Mitchell Boggs is his main setup man. Righty Edward Mujica, who posted a 1.03 ERA since coming from Florida, and lefty Marc Rzepczynski also serve as the bridge.

St. Louis took two of three from the Nationals over the final weekend of the regular season, but Washington won the season series, 4-3. Three of Washington's wins, though, were at home.