Haven't been there, done that: New contenders emerge
Many players seeing first action in games that matter down the stretch
What does it take for a clubhouse full of players, almost none of whom have been down this road before, to be prepared as a cohesive group to handle the pleasures and pressures of being in the middle of a playoff race?Frankly, Ryan Zimmerman can't tell you that. That's understandable, based on his own experience and that of the vast majority of his Nationals teammates. As August winds down and the stretch run becomes real for the National League's surprise team for 2012, this is decidedly new territory. But the Nationals' cornerstone corner man is, like his teammates, eager to enter the fray just the same. "I think people get caught up in that stuff too much," Zimmerman said earlier this month. "I mean, baseball's baseball." The Nationals, winners Wednesday after hitting a little turbulence at the end of August, will find out if there's any difference in the coming weeks. Same goes for the A's, the American League counterpart in the category of surprise contenders: Save for a couple of corners of the clubhouse, playing down to No. 162 with more games on the line isn't on the collective resume. Other teams like the Pirates and Orioles, both trying to hold on with that second Wild Card in play, are scant in stretch-run credentials as well. Will that lack of experience matter down the stretch? Who knows? That's part of the fun. What Zimmerman, who made his debut the same year the Nationals brought baseball back to D.C. in 2005, can tell you is that none of that matters to him or his teammates. "The games we've played the last seven Augusts where we've had 100 losses are the same games we're playing now," said Zimmerman, who endured two 100-loss seasons. "I think people get caught up in making every single game do-or-die, or making it a different game than it really is. That's when you get into trouble. "Baseball is baseball. I think that's why you're seeing so many young guys come up now and have some success. Ultimately, if you can play, you can play." Playoff experience, years of participating in the stretch run, a sense of the tension that comes with September's biggest games -- that stuff doesn't really register to a team on a yearlong roll like the Nationals. The A's are much the same breed of animal -- a young team, a team not expected to be in the thick of the playoff hunt this year, a team without a lot of experience down the stretch. One thing with which they have ample experience this season: Making the so-called experts scratch their heads. The A's were considered to be in a rebuilding phase in 2012, but they have proven to be a thorn in the big-spending Angels' side all year while keeping the Rangers in sight. They maintain the top slot in the AL Wild Card race heading into Thursday's action. "We've been under the radar most of the year and when we are talked about, we're pretty much told we're not going to be there in the end," said A's left-hander Travis Blackley, the winning pitcher Wednesday night at Cleveland. "I think we take it to heart and we try to prove them wrong. "A lot of us, at least in the Minor League level, have played in postseasons and that kind of thing. That always helps, but nothing will compare to the postseason in the Major Leagues. Being young and maybe a little naive to that fact is going to help. Just not having been in the magnitude of that kind of situation before, we can just forget about it and go about our business." A's manager Bob Melvin has experience with leading teams with a lack of experience into the playoff fire. He was the skipper of the 2007 D-backs, who made it to the National League Championship Series with a young and relatively inexperienced team. The Pirates' Clint Hurdle was right there with Melvin's D-backs, and then some. It was that year that Hurdle's Rockies got hot in September and took that torrid streak past the D-backs in the NL Championship Series all the way into the World Series before being swept by the Red Sox. Of more importance to the Pirates at the moment, it is Hurdle's team that picked itself up after an early bow out of the race a year ago, and the 2012 version is staying put in the NL race into September. Do the Bucs have what it takes to finish strong and reach the postseason? "We have the personnel to do it," Hurdle says. Apparently, so do the Orioles, who staunchly maintain their presence in the AL Wild Card race, battling with the A's and currently stationed in the second slot. Their experience in the postseason, and by extension the chase for a postseason spot, is as scant as the rest of the newcomers. Although this number will fluctuate a bit, only eight members of the Orioles' current 25-man roster have played in the postseason before. The A's have six, the Pirates have five and the Nationals four -- all of which may change with disabled players returning, etc. By comparison, the Yankees have just four players who have not played in the postseason, and the Rangers have just four, and both totals include their rookies. Sure, those juggernauts will have experience on their side down the stretch. What the Nationals and the rest of the teams newer to the September shuffle have is that old standby of being young and dumb enough not to care too much about it. By the way, the Nationals are trying to bring postseason baseball to the nation's capital for the first time since 1933. Not that it's a big deal or anything. Face it: With less than a quarter of the season remaining, a lot hangs in the balance for any team in the postseason race. There will be pressure like some have never felt before. There will be ecstatic victories. There will be agonizing losses. The outcome is tantalizingly uncertain. But, as the Nationals can attest, that's a whole lot better than the alternative. "We're a young team, but a lot of us because we were up here in the big leagues a little sooner than we would have been if we'd been with an established organization, so all of us kind of learned up here together," Zimmerman said. "Nothing will teach you about forgetting yesterday like the six seasons we went through before this. "We've gone through the bad part. Compared to what we have gone through, this season's easy. It's fun. It's easy to come to the park now and play. When you're coming to the park in June and you're 20 games out already, that's when it's hard. It's kind of a breath of fresh air, I guess you could say."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. Reporter Zack Meisel contributed to this article. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.