The Nationals are in particular need of postseason advancement. They have yet to win a postseason series in their 12 seasons of existence. But they have been exceptional in regular-season play, winning at least 95 games in three of the last five seasons. Twice they have had the best regular season in the NL. Once they had the best regular-season record in the Major Leagues.
The Dodgers have won four straight division titles and six in the last nine seasons. But they have not been in the World Series since 1988. For a franchise of their historical standing, this drought is not Cub-like, but it is still striking.
Their regular-season records support the notion that these are talented, accomplished teams. So what has happened to them in the postseason?
In the decisive Game 5 of the 2012 Division Series against the Cardinals at Nationals Park, the Nats took a six-run lead early and were still up by two entering the ninth. Washington reliever Drew Storen gave up four runs and the Redbirds won both the game and the series.
In 2014, at home against the Giants in Game 2 after losing the opener, the Nats had a 1-0 lead with two outs in the ninth with Jordan Zimmermann, coming off a no-hitter, pitching at virtually the same level. Zimmermann, who had retired 20 batters in a row, was squeezed slightly by the home plate umpire and gave up his only walk of the game. Nationals manager Matt Williams brought in Storen, who gave up the hit that produced the tying run. The Giants won in the 18th inning and went on to win the series in four games.
Over the last three postseasons, the Dodgers have advanced to the NL Championship Series once (2013) where they lost in six games to the Cardinals. The next two years, the Dodgers lost Division Series, to the Cardinals and then the Mets.
The most surprising thing about their postseason performance has been the substandard work of the man who has otherwise been the best pitcher in baseball, three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw.
Over 13 postseason games, 10 of them starts, Kershaw has a 2-6 record with a 4.59 earned run average. In the two postseason series against St. Louis, Kershaw had an ERA of 7.28.
Kershaw has an immediate chance to get back to his usual stature, pitching the opener of this series for the Dodgers. The pitching matchup for the opener offers the promise of a postseason classic with the Nationals going with their ace, Max Scherzer.
Scherzer wasn't on board for either of the Nats postseason defeats. He was bubbling over with enthusiasm about this start when he met the media Thursday at Nationals Park.
"This is going to be fun," Scherzer said. "It's what you play this game for….This is something you always remember. You want to be in these situations, because this is so much fun, to be able to go up and face a team and pitcher of this caliber."
The Nationals will have some convenient excuses if this series doesn't go in their direction. Catcher Wilson Ramos, who had a breakthrough season, is out with a torn ACL. And Stephen Strasburg has been out with a strained flexor in his pitching arm.
Manager Dusty Baker said Thursday that he had not yet decided on a Game 2 starter. "It would be easy if we had Strasburg," Baker said.
Both teams have managers who had nothing to do with the previous postseason disappointments. This is a very healthy development. Both Baker and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had strong seasons. Roberts made a particularly positive impression, because, when Kershaw missed two months with a herniated disk, the Dodgers moved up in the NL West standings.
So on the issue of Kershaw's work, Roberts has a real appreciation for Kershaw's preparation between starts. But previous postseason shortcomings don't interest him.
"As far as digging into his successes or, you know, certain starts that probably didn't go his way, I don't read too much into it and haven't looked back on it," Roberts said Thursday. "I don't think it has any bearing on postseason, this postseason, the start tomorrow. And I really don't think Clayton cares either."
It turns out that Kershaw isn't placing any importance on those starts either, in part because he has a different view of the pressure that is placed on a staff ace in the postseason.
"I think in the past I've definitely felt that pressure more," Kershaw said. "This year has been a little bit different for me, having to watch on the sidelines for two months. Understanding how good our team is, I think it's really kind of hit home for me as I've come back that I can definitely be part of this and definitely help and definitely be a factor in winning. But I don't have to be the factor…. It's not all on me."
It isn't all on Scherzer and/or Kershaw. But one of them is going to point his team in the right direction Friday night. Eventually, one of these teams will win thrice: It will move on the NL Championship Series, and it will emerge from this series feeling considerably better about its postseason track record.
Michael Bauman is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.