WASHINGTON -- If Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez took anything out of his National League Division Series Game 1 outing, it was that the defending champion Cardinals cannot be underestimated.
"The Cardinals, there's a reason why they have 11 World Series titles," Gonzalez said. "They know what they are doing. It's a great organization. They are the best for a reason, and we have to try to make a statement and try to change that."
The Nationals are doing what they can, winning Game 4, 2-1, at Nationals Park on Jayson Werth's walk-off homer in the ninth inning to keep their World Series dreams alive for another day. Now, Gonzalez is prepared return to the mound for Game 5 on Friday (8:30 p.m. ET on TBS), looking to give the Nats a stronger outing than he did last weekend.
Key stat: Wainwright surrendered just one run and struck out 10 over 5 2/3 innings in Game 1
Key stat: Gonzalez walked a career-high seven in Game 1, but allowed only two runs over five innings
At Nationals Park
2012: 1 GS, 0-1, 20.25 ERA Career: 3 GS, 1-2, 7.24 ERA
2012: 14 GS, 9-4, 2.38 ERA Career: 14 GS, 9-4, 2.38 ERA
Against this opponent (regular season)
2012: 2 GS, 1-1, 7.27 ERA Career: 10 G, 8 GS, 4-3, 3.60 ERA
2012: 1 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA Career: 1 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA
Loves to face: Danny Espinosa: 1-for-7 Hates to face Ian Desmond: 5-for-11, RBI
Loves to face: Carlos Beltran: 0-for-8 Hates to face: Jon Jay: 2-for-4, RBI
Why he'll win: Wainwright owns a 0.77 postseason ERA over 23 1/3 innings
Why he'll win: Gonzalez was arguably the best pitcher in the National League this season
Pitcher beware: Wainwright went 4-7 in 15 regular-season road starts this year
Pitcher beware: Gonzalez struggled with command in Game 1
Bottom line: Wainwright is postseason tested and looked sharp in Game 1
Bottom line: Gonzalez needs to regain his regular-season form after a shaky postseason debut
At the least, Gonzalez will attempt to match his Game 1 effort. Though the left-hander walked seven batters Sunday, he stressed the fact that he was still able to last five innings and limit the damage to two runs.
In a winner-take-all Game 5 at Nationals Park, with almost every pitcher on both sides available, five good innings could be enough.
"I don't think it was that much of a problem," Gonzalez said of his seven walks in Game 1. "It was my first postseason game, no excuses, but the way I see it is we were playing in someone else's house, pretty rowdy. It's pretty exciting. You catch yourself at the moment, take a step back and take a deep breath, and try to find it again."
The crowd will be on his side Friday, packing into Nationals Park for the team's first prime-time game of the postseason. Those fans only help Gonzalez, a top NL Cy Young Award candidate, in his quest to correct what went wrong in Game 1. As soon as they lost Game 3, which made a fifth game necessary to win the series, Nationals players began hyping up Gonzalez's chances in a clincher.
Simply put, they expect him to make improvements. Like most Nationals pitchers this series, Gonzalez had particular trouble pitching to the bottom half of St. Louis' lineup, at one point walking the Cardinals' fifth, seventh, eighth and ninth hitters to spur a two-run rally -- the only runs against him. That has been a trend all series for the Cards, with bottom-of-the-order infielders Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma both enjoying strong series.
"You can't beat having eight guys in that lineup ... who are putting tough at-bats together," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "There's no room to breathe."
So Gonzalez knows he cannot help along a hot St. Louis offense with wildness, even if it did not hurt him much in Game 1. Game 5, he understands, is different. Walks are the enemy. Every mistake looms more significant.
Gonzalez also feels he is prepared for all that, now that he boasts some playoff experience on his resume. Beating the defending World Series champions may not be easy, especially with Gonzalez matching up a second time against Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, who struck out 10 in his Game 1 start.
But the reward is significant: in a must-win game, a date in the NL Championship Series will be on the line.
"You want to win the game, you have to go out there and compete," Gonzalez said. "You're going to have to play against the best. To beat the best, you have to be the best."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.