It is possible the first 38 days of the season will be the toughest for the Nationals, who have scuffled at times en route to an 10-8 record after Sunday's 2-0 loss in New York against the Mets.
That's in large part because of a schedule that doesn't figure to get much tougher. Yes, they have faced the woeful Miami Marlins six times already. But Washington also has played a road series against Cincinnati, the defending NL Central champs, and at home against Atlanta, a playoff team last year. Things are about to get difficult again. The St. Louis Cardinals come in Monday for three games -- their first appearance at Nationals Park since the disastrous Game 5 of the National League Division Series in October.
The Nats then see the Reds again for a four-game series at home. Then come four games in Atlanta against the Braves, who swept Washington on April 12-14 in the District. After three games in Pittsburgh, the Nats play the Detroit Tigers, the defending American League champs, at home twice. That's 19 of their first 34 games against playoff teams from last season. The Nats have only 27 games vs. 2012 playoff teams in their final 128.
The Cardinals pose the initial challenge in the upcoming home?stand. Fans can be forgiven if they're a little skittish about seeing St. Louis again after Washington blew a 6-0 lead in Game 5 of the NLDS. It took its place among the worst moments in the District's checkered sports history as an overflow crowd filed out of Nationals Park that night in utter shock. The home locker room was even worse.
Few teams are better at retooling on the fly than St. Louis, which promoted top prospect Shelby Miller into the rotation this offseason. That helps ease the loss for former ace Chris Carpenter, whose career may be finished after a recurrence of a nerve injury in his right arm.
One intriguing matchup to watch: How does Nats reliever Drew Storen handle facing St. Louis again this week? He, of course, allowed four runs in the ninth inning of Game 5 with his team ahead 7-5 and on the verge of advancing to the NLCS.
- Brian McNally