Cardinals, Nationals square off in surprising NLCS

Washington (AFP) –


The St. Louis Cardinals host the Washington Nationals on Friday in game one of a National League Championship Series that no one following Major League Baseball was expecting.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, winners of a whopping 106 regular-season games, appeared to be steaming toward a third straight World Series appearance when they took a 2-1 lead over the Nationals in their best-of-five National League Division Series.

But the Nats -- who looked dead in the water after a 19-31 start to the season and needed a late three-run rally to edge Milwaukee in the wild card game -- rallied from a three-run deficit to stun the Dodgers 7-3 in 10 innings in the series decider.

The Cardinals didn't need any late heroics to dispatch the Braves 13-1 in their game-five decider, becoming the first team in major league history to score 10 runs in the first inning of a playoff game.

"We know we can beat anyone at this point," St. Louis second baseman Kolten Wong said of a Cardinals team back in the best-of-seven NLCS for the first time since 2014.

Although it has been a while since they were in this position, the Cardinals franchise boasts an impressive post-season resume. Their 11 World Series titles are second only to the New York Yankees' 27.

The Nationals, meanwhile, have finally arrived in the NLCS after a history of playoff disappointment.

The club had won only one prior post-season series, back in 1981, when it was still the Montreal Expos.

Since moving to Washington in 2005, the Nationals had faltered in four prior post-season attempts.

Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon said the rally against the Dodgers summed up the team's season, and philosophy.

"Oh man, keep fighting," he said. "I think that's the story of maybe this organization.

"We have always either done really, really well and then came up short or we had been plagued with injuries and had to continue to fight out of a hole that we dug ourselves in the beginning of the year.

"We just wanted to keep believing in ourselves and not worry about what people outside of our locker room were saying ... we kept on believing in ourselves and just kept on playing ball."

- Exciting October baseball -

The Nationals will give the ball to pitcher Anibal Sanchez for game one. The right-hander started game three against the Dodgers, holding them to one run on four hits in five innings with nine strikeouts.

Washington has plenty of pitching talent to call upon, with three-time Cy Young Award-winner Max Scherzer likely getting the game two start and one other and Stephen Strasburg also potentially getting two starts.

Miles Mikolas, who gets the ball for the Cardinals on Friday, was looking forward to the challenge.

"I think it's going to make for some really exciting October baseball," said Mikolas, who started game one against Atlanta, allowing one run in five innings and also pitched an inning of relief to earn the game-four victory against the Braves.

"You've got Cy Young Award winners, guys who are probably going to win Cy Young Awards, All-Stars, franchise icons, I mean, the list goes on and on.

"I think it's just going to make for some exciting baseball and I'm excited to see what happens and hope the fans can get really into it."