ST. LOUIS - Adam Wainwright was a spectator last fall, cheering on the St. Louis Cardinals from the bench as they rose from wild card to World Series champions.
It's a lot more fun being part of the action.
"Looking back on it, it really hits me when autograph seekers hand me a ball and it's a 2011 World Series ball, and then they take it back and say 'No, No, sign this one instead,'" Wainwright said Saturday. "That's when it hits that I really didn't get to do a whole lot. This game I get to play is very special to me, and missing that time last year, I really learned how much I love the game."
Fans in Washington, D.C., anticipating the first baseball post-season appearance for the nation's capital since 1933, has to feel that way, too.
Wainwright, a 14-game winner in his first year back from elbow reconstruction surgery, successfully fought against restricting his innings and starts Sunday in the NL division series opener. The Nationals, who led the league with 97 wins, will go with 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez after sitting down Stephen Strasburg in early September with 159 1-3 innings pitched.
"There's so many things that factor into this that you take it with a smile," Gonzalez said. "It's the first time ever experiencing this, to represent such a great organization, such a great rotation, great lineup. It's unbelievable."
The Nationals have one of the youngest rosters in the majors and won 98 games as they overcame injuries to Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Ian Desmond. Davey Johnson is a seasoned hand, though, joining Billy Martin as the lone managers to win division titles with four franchises.
During spring training, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said there would be serious consideration to ending Wainwright's season after perhaps 180 innings. About a month into the season, the former 20-game winner convinced the team such restrictions would be unnecessary, and he finished second on the Cardinals with 198 2-3 innings.
During the first half of the season, Wainwright was unhappy with his fastball, slider and changeup and pleased with just his curveball.
"I totally get now why Tommy John recovery is so hard," Wainwright said. "Your arm just takes a while to get back, it really does, and it's hard for me to say that because I thought I was going to be the exception to the rule."
Strasburg, who had elbow surgery in September 2010, was unsuccessful in persuading the Nationals to allow him to finish out the season, the first for the franchise to reach the playoffs since the 1981 Montreal Expos.
Very little time has passed since the Nationals and Cardinals met in St. Louis on the final weekend of the regular season, with Washington on the verge of clinching the league's best record and St. Louis closing in on the final playoff spot.
St. Louis reached the division series by winning the wild-card playoff 6-3 in Atlanta on Friday, a game marred by an infield fly rule call that'll live on forever in the minds of disgruntled Braves fans, but with botched umpiring that affected both sides.
"I've never seen anything like it," Carlos Beltran said. "It's part of baseball. We're happy."
Last year, the Cardinals won every round as an underdog while embracing a rally squirrel as mascot — not to mention marketing opportunity — after a critter raced across home plate and perhaps threw Phillies pitcher Roy Oswalt off his game.
Though manager Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols are gone, the Cardinals retain a seasoned core and added Beltran and injured Rafael Furcal.
"I remember my first post-season start was in 2009 and I was as nervous as I could be," utilityman Skip Schumaker said. "Last year I felt like I was ready to help the team win. It's a whole different feeling because you've been through it."
Rookie manager Mike Matheny has appeared pressure-proof.
"We've been pretty consistent in our approach, and the approach is we've each got to do our part, and nothing more," Matheny said. "We do our part and we do it on a consistent basis and we'll be in a good spot in the end."
Johnson wants to keep things calm, too.
"You really don't do anything different. I don't want to act any different," Johnson said. "It's going to be business as usual, we've got no trick plays we're running out there. Going to try to miss some bats and try to hit some pitches and outscore them."