When it was time to divide the playoff teams between our writing staff, the question becomes who is a great fit to write about each team. Of course, writer’s with teams in contention obviously have first dibs, but what to do with the rest of us. There was some volunteering among us, some shrugs and even one “gimme a week” meant for comedy. However, there was one team that stood out to me the entire time. Everyone seemed to be avoiding taking this as if to leave them for whoever got the last pick, which inevitably would be me. So here I am, a born Red Sox fan, a converted Mets fan… writing about the Washington Nationals.
I have looked at Washington with such disdain and anger over the past two years, that it almost feels right to be focusing in on them after the horrendous 2017 season in Flushing. However, it hasn’t always been that way. Before moving to New York in 2013, I was a Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos fan. Feeling the pressure to not like any New York Sports team, but still wanting to have a National League team, I looked North to a team that would eventually move south. I didn’t hate the Nationals, to me, they were the third attempt at a failed experiment in Washington. However, they took my Expos from Montreal, and that’s something I’ll never be okay with. The first time I went to Nationals Park, I wore my Expos hat and got dirty looks from the Washington Faithful. I was mad. This is your history, whether you like it or not. Nos Amours are now Your Amours. Deal with it.
Anyway, I’m getting off track. I’m trying to reign in my aggression. I should be clear, while I have always had a dislike for the Nationals, I felt bad for them in 2015. Matt Williams was a terrible manager for that squad, and the collapse squarely rests on his shoulders. However, the missed opportunity of signing Bud Black made my blood boil. What I saw from Washington was a complete lack of understanding about what kind of manager this team needs. This team needed solid leadership from a guy who knows pitching, instead what they got was Dusty Baker and Mike Maddux, a guy who knows pitching.
Is Dusty Baker the reason that this team has succeeded in getting to the postseason two years in a row? Absolutely not. What Dusty Baker does very well is he get out of the way of his talent. There’s so little to manage in Washington all he really has to do is sign the lineup card. It’s when you get into situations where you have overcorrected or even over managed games that the Nationals get into trouble.
Let’s look at last year, for example, specifically the last game of the Nationals 2016 season: Game 5 of the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Going into the seventh inning of game five against the Dodgers, the Nationals were in the lead 1-0, with their Ace Max Scherzer on the mound. Scherzer had thrown 98 pitchers in the prior 6 innings, giving 5 hits, 1 earned run and striking out 7. Pretty normal day for Mad Max. It should be mentioned that this is exactly where you want the Dodgers in this situation. Three innings left, the 6-7-8 guys coming up for Los Angeles and the soon-to-be 2016 Cy Young winner on the mound. Moments before Ryan Zimmerman laced a ball down the left field line and Jayson Werth blew through a stop sign rounding third and was gunned down to end the inning by maybe 15 feet. Werth’s baserunning gaffe was odd, to say the least, and the general air of “huh?” filled Nationals Park. It’s an odd moment in the game and it took the momentum from the Nationals.
If you have ever been to a playoff game, you can feel the energy shift. On TV, it’s easy to witness, but live in person it’s one of the strangest feelings a sports fan can experience. It’s almost like your body is being lifted up into a spaceship, you have zero control and you don’t like where it’s going. Now wrap all of that in a sense of confusion and panic. That’s the moment right there. It’s Travis Ishikawa hitting a home run in the ninth, it’s Aaron Boone hitting a ball into the left-field stands, it’s Eric Hosmer sliding safely into home. It’s the worst feeling, but it’s one that is ended by your team stepping up to the plate. So let’s get back to the 7th inning of Game 5.
Joc Pederson takes Scherzer’s first pitch of the inning over the fence in left-center. This should be a blip on the radar. A moment of calm. This is one of those moments when you need to buckle down as a player and manager and say “alright, it’s a tie ballgame, keep pushing, keep playing.” Instead, the look of Dusty Baker’s face is one of “I should have pulled you before this could have happened.” And that’s exactly what he does. The second after Pederson touches home plate, Baker is on his way to get Scherzer.
What happens next is something out of a nightmare. Baker brings in FIVE pitchers, who give up 3 runs in that inning. To different guys used against the 7-8-9 hitters, as well as Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz who pinch hit for Chase Utley. ARE YOU TRYING TO PITCH MATCHUPS AGAINST CHOOCH AND THE BOTTOM OF THE DODGERS LINEUP?! HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND. This game was over managed, overplayed and over analyzed and that loss rests squarely on Baker’s shoulders. Let Max mow down the next two guys and see where we go from there. Instead, you took the air out of the room. I’m hoping that Baker doesn’t make that same mistake twice.
Speaking of the same mistake twice, Daniel Murphy had another insane season in 2017 and I don’t see him slowing down anytime soon. Daniel Murphy is doing that thing where he transitions from young stud to old pro seamlessly. I mean, Daniel Murphy’s stats make me think he made a deal with the Devil or his good buddy Jesus in order to have the past two years he’s put together. He’s doing young players a favor by having a great season after the age of 30. Soon we’ll hear about guys projected to have Murphy-like years in their 30s. The number that sticks out to me besides his second consecutive season hitting above .320, is his doubles. Doubles are my favorite stat because it shows me that Daniel Murphy isn’t just getting hits, he’s putting the ball in the gap, hitting it over guys heads, he’s making the opposition guess where he’s gonna hit it. Can you shift against Daniel Murphy? I don’t think so because his numbers are not in your favor. Daniel Murphy finds a way to rake. I bet you he could rake on water if he put his mind to it.
Also in line with the “Veterans Having Monster Seasons” theme is Ryan Zimmerman, the original National. I was one of those people saying that Zimmerman was done after last year, that this would be a long slow walk to retirement. I’ve never been more wrong. Ryan Zimmerman found a way to rewind the clock 7 years and put up numbers like his 25-year-old self. The difference between his numbers in the 2009, 2010 seasons and Zim’s 2017 are minimal, almost microscopic. I found myself saying “this is a hot streak” for over 2 months. The guy turned it on and broke the handle off.
Then there are guys like Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon. When Trea Turner came up from the minors last year, they had to play him Centerfield due to how abysmal Ben Revere was for the Nats. I personally, loved Turner in Center. Didn’t mind it one bit. However, with the offseason acquisition of Adam Eaton and the shipment of Danny Espinosa to Los Angeles, Turner moved back to his natural position of Shortstop. There was zero difference in his performance on the diamond, and that’s a great sign for the Nats going forward.
What’s going to make Trea Turner an asset in this series is his speed. The Cubs snagged René Rivera from the Mets to add a bit of defense to their catching battalion. Rivera was brought in by the Mets because they do not currently have a catcher who is able to throw the ball to second, let alone first. However, with Rivera’s bat leaving something to be desired, it’s almost 100% that Maddon will go with Wilson Contreras of Alex Avila on the postseason roster. While Contreras has the arm strength to pick runners off at the corners, he’s seen his Caught Stealing Percentage drop a full 10 points in the last year, from 37% to 27%, just south of Avila’s 31% rate. Turner has the 3rd highest stolen base percentage in the AL, sitting at 85.19%. Those are insanely good odds for the Nationals.
Trea Turner’s gonna RUN on Chicago, you guys. The Kid is gonna RUN. That’s going to be hell for this Cubs team. Especially since the Cubs pitching staff Being able to turn a single into a runner in scoring position is going to give the meat of this lineup something to sink their teeth into. Turner’s ability to take second, and even third, to be honest, will be a terror for the Cubs staff, who also holds one of the highest stolen base success rates. If the Nationals can get on base and run, they’ll take this series handily. It’s a huge chink in Chicago’s armor.
Rendon has been one of my favorite players to watch this season. The 27-year-old third baseman is having another incredible year, on par with his 2014 campaign, when he finished 5th in MVP voting. Putting up a great slash line of .301/.403/.533 with an OPS of .937, what I love about Rendon is that he does is that he does all of this from the 6th spot in the lineup. The way this Nationals lineup is structured, they basically have two 3-hole hitters. On most squads, your 6th hitter is a middle of the road bat, who’s trying to knock in what he can before getting to the bottom of the order, guys like Josh Reddick, Carlos Santana, Greg Bird, and Dustin Pedroia. Guys who aren’t big bats, but can get a hit in when called on. Rendon does all of that and more at the plate.
When you look at his 2017 stats, remembering that he’s spent most of his time in the 6 and 5-holes, his company can seem a little insane. Rendon’s stats match right up there with guys like Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Justin Turner and José Ramirez. YOU HAVE THAT GUY BATTING SIXTH. When does this lineup stop scaring you? I mean, come on. When this Washington offense is operating correctly and efficiently, it’s going to be suffocating to the defending champs.
Bryce is Bryce. He’s gonna do Bryce Harper things if he’s healthy. Pray that he’s healthy.
Oddly enough, the pitching is what’s going to decide Washington’s fate in the NLDS. With Max Scherzer’s fate semi-decided by throwing him in Game 3, it’s all way too up in the air to really put my money on the National’s staff. Which has got to be frustrating for Nationals fans, but if they can win the first two innings, Dusty Baker can futz with things a little bit.
Stephen Strasburg is your Game 1 starter because DUH HE IS. Strasburg’s 2017 season was one of his better ones, in that he wasn’t injured for the majority of it. In his 28 starts, Strasburg went 15-4 with an ERA of 2.52 and a WHIP of 1.015. It should be noted that Strasburg’s 2017 K/9 dropped below 11 for the first time since 2014, but his WHIP dipped below 1.100 for the first time since 2013. This shows me that Strasburg is focusing more on the finesse of his pitches and less about blowing batters away and going for the K. He’s hitting spots, he’s getting calls and I think the acquisition of Matt Wieters has a lot do with his success this year.
Against the Cubs, Strasburg is 1-1 in 5 games against the Wrigley residents. While the record may not show it, Strasburg is pretty solid against Chicago, putting up a 2.08 ERA, a 10.6 K/9, and a .981 WHIP. In his 5 starts, Strasburg has also only given up 4 home runs to Chicago throughout his career. Against a power hitting Cubs lineup, that’s a great stat to be going in with. Barring a complete collapse, Strasburg has a great chance of blowing away the Cubs in Game 1.
Gio Gonzalez has earned Game 2 in a major way. Remember when Gio had a sub 2.00 ERA in his first 8 starts in 2016, and then he got absolutely murdered by the Mets? Imagine Gio Gonzalez has an identical season to that, except he never plays the Mets and he just keeps mowing down opposing hitters. That’s been Gio’s 2017. In his 32 starts this year, Gio’s ERA has been above 3.00 only twice, and he finished with a 1.179 WHIP. The guy has been lights out, nasty, insane, pitching out of his mind. Against the Cubs, those numbers don’t quite stand, but they’re close. In 10 starts against Chicago, the most of any Nationals starter, Gio holds a 3-3 record, 3.06 ERA, a 9.2 K/9, 1.103 WHIP and has given up only 3 dingers. That 3 dinger stat is the best on the Nationals staff and considering he’s faced the Cubs 10 times in his career, that’s a solid, solid stat.
If Max Scherzer goes in Game 3, I will be very, very surprised. I would give the ball to Max if the Nats lost the first two games and it is a do or die situation. However, if they find themselves 2 up or even tied, I hand the ball to Roark. I would much rather have a healthy Max Scherzer pitch in the NLCS and Tanner Roark go in Game 3 than continue the playoffs without Mad Max simple as that. It’s just not worth the risk. If the Nats have their backs to the wall, he’s the guy I want on the hill but if they can spare to drop a game, I’m okay with sitting him in favor of Roark. Are Roark’s number awful against Chicago? They’re not terrible, 4.06 ERA, 7.2 K/9, 1.301 WHIP, but I’d much rather have that than a lack of Scherzer in the NLCS, especially since he has better numbers against the Diamondbacks and Dodgers than he does against the Cubs.
This brings me to my main focus for the Nationals in this NLDS: Curses.
The Washington Nationals have never made it out of the playoffs. They need to forget that and play their game.
Something I have talked about on this blog is an about how in May, in between weeks at Kinky Boots, I went down to D.C. with my girlfriend. It was her uncle’s birthday and since he is a huge Nats fan, his wife got him a box and surprised him! A great birthday present! This was Sunday, April 30th. Noah Syndergaard vs. Joe Ross…. where the Mets lost 23-5. It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had at a baseball game. I wanted to throw up everywhere. My body went numb. I mean, here we are in a box, right behind home plate, Mets/Nats rivalry, the Mets winning the first 2 games coming off their abysmal losing streak and looking for a sweep.
The first home run off of Kevin Plawecki didn’t sting. It was bound to happen. A position player against Bryce Harper? I’ll take Harper every time. The Adam Lind home run?Completely different story. Nationals Park erupted. It was as if he had hit a go-ahead homer in the 9th. It was loud and boisterous. It was mayhem. It was also 22-5. Then Anthony Rendon goes yard. 23-5. The place goes nuts. I walk into the box and someone makes a “tough day” joke. I laughed and said, “at least we’ve made it out of the first round.” Absolute silence. I had touched a nerve.
Why do I bring this up? Because there’s something about that moment that tipped me off to the psyche of a Nationals fan. This is a team and a fanbase that is nervous, that needs so desperately to win and to prove that they can get out of the first round of the playoffs, that they’ll do anything. No one was used to winning like this, but everyone was living like it would stop tomorrow.
You need to let that go. NOW. If you are trying to win the series every game, you’re going to fall on your face. You need to stop thinking about the end goal and take each game one at a time. That’s how you win. That’s how you break curses. That’s how the Red Sox did it in 2004.
If the Nationals make it to the NLCS, it’s going to feel weird. That’s normal, it’s uncharted territory, but you can’t get there by walking on eggshells. No, you get there by playing your game, one game at a time, by not letting each run feel like a dagger to your heart. The Nationals and their fanbase have to breathe. You can’t have a heart attack on October 6th and expect to be fine by October 26th.
Trust me, I’m a Mets fan. I’ve been there. You Gotta Believe me…
Prediction: Nationals in 3 or Cubs in 5.
There’s no in between on this for me. If the Nationals let the Cubs hang around in this series, they’ll lose. The Cubs have done this before and have the hardware to prove it. If you give them the chance to win, they’ll take it. Nats gotta hop out ahead early and never let go. Simple right?