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.