Another autopsy of another Nationals NLDS loss

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 on 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.  Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training next February.



Thoughts on NLDS Game 5

There are two possibilities tonight: total letdown or delirious celebration.  There is no middle ground.  Today will either be a crushing failure of the greatest day in Nationals history.  That’s the reality of a double elimination game.

It’s disappointing the Nationals couldn’t close out this series in LA.  Put the half-empty glass down, though, and realize this: the Nationals are lucky to be alive.  Their starting pitching, the team’s strength and the lifeblood of any contender, has fallen completely flat on its face this series.  Max Scherzer, the team’s ace, turned in a pedestrian start in Game 1, allowing 4 runs in 6 innings.  Against Clayton Kershaw, that’s not a winning performance, and he didn’t.  Tanner Roark in Game 2 allowed 10 baserunners before being pulled it the 5th inning; only a spectacular performance by the Nats bullpen salvaged a win.  Gio Gonzalez in Game 3 also didn’t survive the 5th inning; the bullpen saved him too.  In the first three games, the Nats relievers combined for 12.1 scoreless innings.  In Game 4, Joe Ross had to be pulled in the 3rd inning with the bases loaded and the Nationals down 4-2.

The Nationals have yet to achieve a quality start this postseason.  They are 0-4.  Under any other circumstances, their season would be over and the post-season autopsy would be underway.

Consider Game 5 a second chance.

And the Nationals’ second chance is a good one.  A fresh Max Scherzer, making his 12th career postseason start, is the man the Nats need on the mound.  This is his moment and he needs to seize it.  The Nats will likely live or die with Max tonight, and that’s not a bad thing.

There’s more good news.  This team is built to win, unlike past playoff teams.  In an age of statistics, it’s impossible to measure intangibles or what Tim Hudson tactlessly referred to as what you “have between your legs” in 2014.  But this series has convinced me this team is more mentally prepared than prior Nationals playoff contenders.  The Nats showed more on-field emotion in their must-win Game 2 than I’ve seen in all prior playoff appearances.  It’s a cosmetic observation, sure, but compare the on-field demeanor of the Nats in Game 2 to the frozen-in-the-headlights behavior in the 2014 NLDS.  If you need emotion to win in October, this team certainly has it.

It takes more than emotion to win in the playoffs, however.  You also need poise.  This team has that too.  Consider the comeback against the Dodgers in Game 4.  Bryce Harper’s at bat in the 7th inning typified this team’s “we’re never out of it” attitude.  With two runners on base, down by 3, and representing the tying run, Harper resisted the temptation to tie the game with one swing.  Instead, he stayed composed and took his free base when Kershaw couldn’t find the strike zone on his 9th pitch of the at bat.  Harper walked to first confident the guys behind him could come through.  Two batters, later, Daniel Murphy tied the game.

Anything can happen in a Game 5.  You are right to be terrified.  But this team has the players (Murphy, Werth, Scherzer) and the manager who have been there before.  They might lose tonight, but at least they’re going in better prepared for the moment than any Nats team I’ve seen.





Thoughts on Clayton Kershaw in Game 4

Dodgers had two choices: trust the brain or trust the gut.  They went with gut.

Last night, I incorrectly assumed the Dodgers would save Clayton Kershaw for a decisive and final Game 5 in DC.  It just seems like logical thing to do.  First, the Dodgers have to win the next two games to win the series, and Kershaw can only pitch one of those games.  All things being equal, I’d rather–if I were the Dodgers–have Kershaw pitch on the road in a tougher environment matched up against the Nats best pitcher, Max Scherzer.   Pitching him in Game 4 forces him to go on 3 days rest.  I wouldn’t ordinarily object to that, but Kershaw is still building back his stamina after missing most of the second half with an injury.  He only reached 100 pitches for the first time in Game 1.  Saving him for Game 5 might mean the Dodgers get 6 innings Thursday instead of 5 tonight–not insignificant consider the Dodgers bullpen is a little beat worn out and beat up.

Still.  This is the playoffs.  There’s an old axiom that you worry about tomorrow tomorrow.  It just feels wrong to keep your best pitcher on the sidelines, even if he’s only at 75 or 80 percent due to short rest.  The Dodgers season could end tonight; Dave Roberts doesn’t want that to happen with his best weapon still in the arsenal.  Maybe the thought of starting a 19 year old rookie, Julio Urias, in an elimination game sounds unconscionable to the Dodgers manager.

The most topical analogy  is Buck Showalter’s failure to use his best reliever, Zach Britton, in the Orioles extra innings Wild Card Game loss.  To me, this is fundamentally different.  I think Showalter made a grave mistake saving his best pitcher.  But in that situation, Britton was capable of pitching multiple innings.  With the game tied in the 11th, he could have pitched that inning, the Orioles could have scored in the top of the 12th, and Britton could have closed it out in the bottom of that inning.  Showalter could have avoided using his inferior reliever, Ubaldo Jimenez, altogether.  Here, the Dodgers have to start a pitcher other than Kershaw.  I think it’s best to do it at home, against Joe Ross rather than Scherzer.

Rich Hill will be available on Thursday night on 3 days rest as well.  Maybe the Dodgers plan on starting him then.  Maybe the equation is Kershaw (3 days rest) + Hill (3 days rest) > Urias (full rest) + Kershaw (full rest).  Maybe Roberts wants the option of Urias or Hill or some combination of the two.  Maybe he truly is worrying about tomorrow tomorrow and he has no plan.  Gut over brain.

I will say this.  As somebody pulling for the Nats, I feel better.  With Kershaw looming in Game 5, even against Scherzer, I was considering Game 4 a must win.  Now it feels like house money.  Win today, move on.  Lose, the team has a significant matchup advantage Thursday night.

A deciding Game 5 at home.  What could go wrong?

Nationals take a 2-1 NLDS lead over the Dodgers

It was slow, and it was unbearable to watch, right up until the moment Ryan Zimmerman put the game away with the 2-run double in the top of the 9th.

Look, if you actually enjoy watching these games, you probably don’t care enough.  Playoff baseball is brutal experience, and Game 3 was especially agonizing.  You survived it, and your reward is getting to do it all again Tuesday night.

Gio Gonzalez is normally hard to watch because of his wildness and demeanor on the mound, but this is especially true in the postseason where each game, inning, and run matters so much more.  I’ve been dreading Gio’s first playoff start all season.  He came into today with spotty playoff track record as the starting pitcher each of the Nats last two elimination games.  My concern was justified.

Gio–again–couldn’t get out of the 5th inning.  There was a brief window of hope for him after a tough first inning, but a 2-run home run in the bottom of the 5th, cutting the Nats lead to 4-3, forced Dusty to go to his bullpen earlier than any of us wanted.  The Nats relievers worked through the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th with the thinnest of margins until the Nats lineup blew the game wide open in the 9th.

Dusty gets credit for putting the right guys in the right spots.  He pulled Gio at the right time and let Sammy Solis and Shawn Kelley get the job done.  The Nats bullpen has been a huge strength this series.  They were heroes on Sunday too, bailing out Tanner Roark who also couldn’t make it out of the 5th inning.  The bullpen now has 12.1 innings of scoreless relief, but their luck will eventually run out.  It has to.  To keep their season alive, a starting pitcher will need to step up and deliver a good start.  We’re 0-3 so far.  It’s actually a little remarkable the Nats haven’t been swept considering that fact.  The acclaim goes to Dusty, the bullpen, and a Nats lineup that finally woke up.

There was a moment Sunday when it felt like the sand was running out of the hour glass.  A disappointing Game 1 led into an inauspicious beginning to Game 2.  The stadium seemed drained of life and we all started to imagine a repeat of 2014–g0ing to the West Coast down 2-0.  But the playoffs create unlikely heroes, and no one was more unlikely than Jose Lobaton, who didn’t even start Game 1, and wouldn’t be playing but for Wilson Ramos’ injury.  Lobaton’s 3-run home run might have saved the season.  Since that moment, the Nats have scored 13 runs in 14 innings–they only scored 9 through the entire 2014 postseason.

But now we turn to Game 4 and the pressure is on the Dodgers.  The Nats have their first ever 2-1 playoff series lead and a chance to clinch their first playoff series win.

Yet, even though the Dodgers face elimination, the pressure is on the Nats too.  Traveling back to DC for a 5th game would feel like a letdown.  Moreover, a Game 5 would be a dangerous rematch with Clayton Kershaw.  The Nats have the 2-1 edge right now, but if you expect any less anxiety, you’re gonna be disappointed.

Thoughts on a tough Game 1 loss

We were all wrong.  At least I was.  I expected Clayton Kershaw to show up and shut down the Nats.  Even though he missed most of the second half due to injury, he returned just to time build up his strength for a playoff run.  In my mind, the question wasn’t whether the Nats could beat Kershaw in Game 1, but whether Max Scherzer could keep pace.

It turns out that Clayton Kershaw never showed up.  He had trouble locating his fastball.  His slider didn’t have the same bite.  The Nats got plenty of baserunners and managed to push across 3 runs in 5 innings.  Almost as importantly, they worked up his pitch count, making the Dodgers go to bullpen before they wanted to.

In a cruel twist of fate, that Max Scherzer never showed up either.  The long ball virus infected Max again in the first inning.  Then again in the third.  After spotting the Dodgers a 4-0 lead, Kershaw and the LA bullpen managed to hold on.

The Kershaw-Scherzer pitching duel never arrived.  Instead, both guys tried to hold on long enough to get the game to their bullpen.  Ironically, it looked like Max had the better stuff on the night, but he made the bigger mistakes, so he gets the loss.  Earlier today, I wrote about how big moments like this are why teams go out and sign an ace like Scherzer.  Today was his moment, and he didn’t seize it.  It’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Speaking of bitter pills to swallow, today was the first day Wilson Ramos’ absence became a problem.  All season, Ramos anchored the Nats lineup, providing a critical RBI source in the middle of the order.  Without him, the Nats batting order is noticeably thinner.  This became evident three different times when Danny Espinosa came to bat with two runners on base, and three times he struck out.  Without Ramos, the back third of the Nats order just didn’t pack as much punch, and the heart of the lineup had their efforts wasted.  The story of the night was poor hitting with runners in scoring position, and Espinosa was the poster boy of that futility.

Tonight was a wasted opportunity.  Kershaw in a short series is a dangerous threat, yet the Nats had a chance to beat him.  Scherzer didn’t do his job.  Neither did Espinosa.  Nobody else came up with a big hit in the late innings to salvage this loss.

The playoffs are cruel.  A season can be ended very quickly.  Someone has to step up and be hero, but so far we don’t have any takers.

For Game 1, all eyes on Max Scherzer

The playoff are unfair.  Very unfair.  162 games of grinding, fighting–and even dominating if you’re the Cubs–can all be rendered meaningless in 72 hours.  The five game series is cruel.  It’s like deciding a marathon winner with a 40 yard dash.

It’s especially cruel for the Nationals, who get to face the best pitcher on the planet Clayton Kershaw, maybe twice if the series goes five games.  If Kershaw pitches like Kershaw, the Dodgers could already be two thirds of the way to the NLCS.

My next point is obvious, but it needs to be said.  Today is why the Nats signed Max Scherzer.  The regular season awards consistency and longevity.  The postseason awards dominance.  And there are very few pitchers more capable of achieving dominance than Max Scherzer.  Scherzer has moments where he’s frustrating to watch.  He sometimes gives up home runs in bunches and he looks nothing like an ace.  But he also has those moments–like the no-hitter against Pittsburgh in 2015 or the 20 strikeout performance earlier this year–where he looks like the best pitcher on the planet.

Five above-average pitchers will win you 100 games and a division title.  One dominant pitcher will win you a playoff series.  The Dodgers have their guy capable of dominance.  The Nats have theirs too.

The playoffs aren’t fair, but they’re fun.  Scherzer against Kershaw.  Let’s do this.

Turn the MLB Playoffs into October Madness

Without thinking, tell me the most memorable night of baseball you can remember from the last 10 years?  No, not Game 4 in 2012.  Think globally for a minute.  Game 162 on the 2011 season was the best day of regular season baseball, maybe ever.

The final day of the regular season that year had four teams fighting for two playoff spots.  Several of the games went to extra innings.  The night finished with walk-off wins in Baltimore and Tampa, within moments of each other, knocking the Red Sox out of the playoffs in favor of the Rays.  Here’s a video compilation in case you don’t remember it.  It was wild.

A lot of memorable baseball games have been played since then.  Heck, the 2011 World Series had one of the best baseball games of all time.  But Game 162 endures.  Why?  There’s something magical about all those unlikely events happening at the same time.  The moment would have been diminished had the games been spread out over multiple days.  Anyone who “participated” in Game 162 remembers that night well–flipping from channel to channel, monitoring social media, trying not to miss a minute.

On Thursday, MLB begins it’s American League and National League Divisional Series.  Four different series will be spread out over week.  On Thursday, we’ll have two games; on Friday, four.  The games on Friday will start around 1pm and run until you go to bed.  It’s a pretty good day to be a baseball fan.  But think for a minute.  Would it be more fun if all the games happened at the same time?

This isn’t a new concept.  Multiple games running simultaneously has become the brand of March Madness.  Many fans consider the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament to be the best weekend in sports.  We all remember–at least once–watching a buzzer beater and then immediately changing the channel to see another one.  College basketball has created a format where such a thing is possible.

On Tuesday night, the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Orioles in 11 innings.  It was a great game.  On Wednesday, the Giants beat the Mets with a go-ahead home run in the 9th inning.  It was an equally thrilling baseball game.  Baseball fans were treated to back-to-back nights of exciting postseason at its best.  But try to imagine both games played at the same time.  Imagine watching the Orioles bullpen escape run-scoring threat only to change the channel to watch the Mets do the same.  Then you change back the Blue Jays-Orioles game to see a walk-off home run before you go back to Giants-Mets to see Madison Bumgarner complete his shutout.  Social media would be buzzing.  Fans around the country would be texting/calling each other making sure they don’t miss the action.  Quick, go back the Giants game! The bases are loaded!  It would more than double the experience.

There are logical reasons why this will never happen.  Competing TV networks pay billions of dollars to televise these games and they don’t want to compete against each other.  Some fans would hate it too, because they want to see every pitch.

But today’s media world is perfectly suited for a Play Em All At The Same Time format.  Social media like Twitter allows us to follow both games at the same time even if we’re not watching both.  DVRs allow us to pause and rewind games in case we just missed something.  The internet allows instant replays and gifs for fans who are plugged in.

Moreover, playing all the games at once solves baseball’s biggest problem: pace of play.  It’s not a secret national baseball TV ratings are plunging.  There’s a lot of concern MLB is losing the next generation.  Games are too long, too slow.  We can’t change the game of baseball, nor should we try.  But playing all the games at once kills two birds with one stone.  It keeps baseball’s cherished rules from being touched while giving fans more baseball in the same amount of time.

College basketball is far from the most popular sport in America, but it seizes every March.  It becomes a national obsession.  Baseball may not be able to do the same with October, but they could try.