The defending World Series champion Cards, leading 2-1, are looking to move on to the NL Championship Series, while the Nats simply strive to survive and force a Friday night Game 5.
With Cardinals right-hander Kyle Lohse facing southpaw Ross Detwiler, Washington might want to take a page out of the St. Louis playbook from Game 3 and go on the attack early in counts and early in the game to get the home crowd revved.
Going for the gusto early worked like a charm for the Redbirds against Edwin Jackson in Game 3 on Wednesday as St. Louis won, 8-0. It's the way the Nationals play naturally, but the impact hasn't been there in this series.
"Obviously, we're not scoring runs," Washington right fielder and leadoff man Jayson Werth said. "We've played great baseball all year. I believe in this team. Over the 162-game season, we were the best team in baseball, and I still feel that way."
The Nationals have been outscored, 22-7, in the series. The Cards are hitting a cool .300 with a .550 slugging percentage. The Nats are hitting .240 and slugging .317.
In Game 3, out of the first-inning chute, Matt Holliday singled and Allen Craig slashed an RBI double, both on 1-0 counts. An inning later, shortstop Pete Kozma delivered the howitzer, a three-run homer, on a first-pitch fastball by Jackson.
"Against guys who throw hard like [Jackson], you've got to be ready to hit," said 2011 World Series MVP David Freese, hitting .417 in the series with three doubles. "We're not in the [batter's] box to walk. We're up there swinging at anything that looks good.
"When your eyes light up, that's a great feeling. You could see that with Pete today. His eyes really lit up."
First-pitch fastballs, Freese agreed, are often the best pitches you'll see in a given at-bat. Kozma was ready for his, and he unloaded.
The trend throughout baseball in the past few decades has gone toward working counts and building starters' pitch counts in the hope of getting them out of the game in the middle innings.
The Cardinals and Nationals bucked that trend consistently, with impressive results.
Washington swung at more first pitches (32.1 percent) than any team in the Majors. St. Louis was seventh (28.9). Five of the eight most aggressive teams in the game -- Cincinnati, Detroit and San Francisco joining the Nats and Cards -- made it to the postseason.
What's more, four of the seven most aggressive teams in terms of fewest pitches seen per at-bat are postseason clubs: the Tigers (third, 3.75), Giants and Nationals (tied for fourth, 3.77), and Cardinals (seventh, 3.78).
What these numbers inform us is that swinging early in counts is not necessarily a harmful thing, after all.
Kozma, a surprise contributor in the absence of shortstop Rafael Furcal, had put only six first pitches in play this season, with a single to show for it. That's what made his ambush of Jackson so unexpected.
"I was just looking to put a ball in the outfield," Kozma said. "Fortunately, he threw me a fastball and it made it into the seats. I'll look back on it later. Now I'm just thinking about being ready for the next game."
In Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Michael Morse and Bryce Harper, the Nats have four of the 16 most aggressive hitters in the game, in terms of percentage of swings.
Desmond, the athletic shortstop, is having a brilliant series, hitting .583. The others are struggling -- especially the gifted Harper, who has a double to show for 15 at-bats and has struck out six times without a walk.
"We're just not getting timely hits," Desmond said. "It's just a matter of scoring runs. We've done it all year. We had the best record in the Major Leagues for a reason."
Only two players in baseball swing at a higher percentage of pitches than Desmond. His assertive manner early in counts is something his teammates might want to emulate should Lohse provide the opportunity.
"It doesn't matter what the count is," Desmond said. "We just need to hit some balls hard and score some runs."
The Nationals have two doubles and two homers in the series, compared to eight doubles, a triple and five homers by the Cards.
If they don't bust out soon, the Nats will greet winter much sooner than they'd anticipated.
"We're not out of this by a long shot," Washington manager Davey Johnson said. "Keep us in the ballgame, get a few key hits, and we're right back in it."
Should the Nationals force a Game 5, they'll have Gio Gonzalez in line to engage Adam Wainwright in a rematch of Game 1.