Here we are. Again. Another division championship ultimately means nothing as another team celebrates on the Nationals home field.
I was skeptical about Clayton Kershaw starting Game 4 when the Dodgers backs were against the wall. I was wrong. Kershaw delivered a strong enough performance to keep their season alive, and still managed to make an appearance in Game 5. Again and again, manager Dave Roberts made the right moves at the right times to give his team an edge. He put his dominant closer Kenley Jansen in the game in the 7th inning of Game 5 to stop the Nationals rally and keep the game 4-3. He kept him there all the way until the 9th, making him throw a career high 51 pitches before turning to Kershaw for the save. Roberts managed the last two games of this series like his pants were on fire. His team was on life support and he acted accordingly. Ultimately, he was right because his team will be playing in the NLCS while the Nats will not.
As for Dusty Baker, it’s only natural to second guess his managing in the last two games of this series. Would starting Max Scherzer in Game 4 have made a difference? Six shutout innings in LA likely would have ended the series in 4 games. Should Dusty have deployed his closer, Mark Melancon, the same way Roberts did in Game 5? Instead of wasting Melancon to pitch the 9th inning in a 8-3 Game 3, could he have better used him in a tie 5-5 game in Game 4, relieving Blake Treinen at just the right time? When he Dodgers were rallying the 7th inning in Game 5, could Melancon have stopped the bleeding, where Solis and Kelley failed? One manager managed game 4 and 5 like his season depended on it. One manager stuck to the playbook. Only one of those two will be managing in the NLCS.
The game itself had an uncomfortable feel that is becoming too familiar at Nats Park. After a fast start from Scherzer and a quick run by the Nats in the second inning, the game largely ground to a stop. Tension started to build. The crowd started to wind itself tight as the Nationals failed to build on their one run lead, creating an atmosphere similar to the latter innings of Game 5 in 2012 when the Cardinals started chipping away at the Nats lead. As we entered the late innings still 1-0, it is fair to wonder if the players and coaches were feeling the tension too, and it’s especially fair to wonder what in Bob Hendley’s mind when he sent Jayson Werth home a play any reasonable 3rd base coach would have been holding up the stop sign. Under any other circumstances, Hendley probably tells Werth to stop. Seriously, that play wasn’t even close. He’d never admit it, but it’s likely he was feeling the same pressure the rest of us were, and he tried to squeeze out an extra run the Nationals so desperately needed. Plain and simple, Hendley choked at the worst possible time.
And maybe Dusty was feeling the pressure, too, when he sent Max Scherzer back out for the 7th inning. Of course, it’s easy to judge in hindsight, but Dusty was probably pushing his luck. Max had already thrown 6 emotional innings and in an elimination game it’s always better to pull your guy one inning too early than one inning too late. There were multiple lefties and a closer ready to go. Maybe a combination of them keeps the 1 run lead intact for 3 more innings. Then again, maybe not.
Of course, all of this Monday morning managing is easy when we have the benefit of hindsight. The Nationals had multiple chances to win this game and they didn’t do it. To their credit, however, they fought until the end. Down 4-1, while I was wondering how many fans would throw in the towel and catch the last Metro train, the Nationals mounted rally after desperate rally. Chris Heisey hit a 2-run home run to cut the lead to 4-3 and the Nats put 6 more runners on base over 3 innings. They didn’t give up, which is both encouraging and dispiriting since they were only that much closer.
Moral victories, however, don’t win you trophies. The Nats were losers on the big stage. Again.
There was a moment in the middle of the chaos, though, where I paused to appreciate what I was witnessing. I grew up in a town without professional baseball–an entire generation of Washingtonians did. Now, on a perfect fall evening in a spectacular baseball game, in a full stadium in the 9th inning, the greatest pitcher on the planet made one of those surprise relief appearances we only see in October. On his way to the mound, he jogged past the best young player of his generation, standing on second base and wearing the home uniform. All of this was happening in a stadium in Washington D.C., where we’ve seen three playoff appearances in five years–and we’ll probably see more if this core stays together. Even at the depth of this team’s sadness in 2009, this was all so hard to imagine.
As I was leaving the stadium I saw boy in a Nationals shirt and hat with tears streaming down his face. Baseball can do that to you. At his age, he’s probably more devastated than all of us. He doesn’t have the perspective of time, which unfortunately makes us remember past playoff failures, but also gives us the understanding that there will be another year, another team. The 2016 Nats came close, but not close enough. The best part is we get to do it all again. Pitching and catchers report to Spring Training next February.