In the lead-up to the Nationals’ NLDS against the Cardinals, the Nationals’ inexperience compared to the Cardinals’ experience became a significant story line. It was fair to wonder if that would have any real effect on the series, or if it was just a topic the media pondered to pass the time.
Several Nationals veterans said before the series that, yes, experience mattered. In the aftermath of the Cardinals’ stunning Game 5 comeback, as Steinberg covered over on the Bog, several Cardinals thought it was one of the decisive factors.
In a lengthy column by Bernie Miklasz in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cardinals players almost taunted the Nationals as they explained how they believed their experience and the Nationals’ inexperience played a role.
In the fourth and fifth innings, Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals’ de facto ace with Stephen Strasburg in the dugout, allowed three runs while walking four. One unnamed player said to Miklasz, “Gio looked like he didn’t want to be out there. The guy has a 6-0 lead, then 6-1, and he’s panicking out there. We smelled blood.”
Skip Schumaker was on the record, and he was even more pointed: “Before the series started, I said you really couldn’t put a price tag on experience. A lot of guys had the bright-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights look. And I’m not going to mention names, but we saw them taking a couple of deep breaths between pitches, and they were up four or five runs. When we saw that, we started talking. We weren’t taking any deep breaths. We were the ones trying to push. It felt like we had the momentum, which is crazy to say because we were behind. But it really felt that way.”
In the clubhouse afterward, when Gonzalez explained his thinking about the start, he certainly did not sound like a classic, been-there-done-that postseason ace.
“I left winning, and that’s all that matters,” Gonzalez said. “I gave the team a chance. That’s what they wanted out of me. I think we all battled.”
Closer Drew Storen had been dominant for more than a month – he had a two-run lead, and had allowed only two earned runs in his final 21 innings of the regular season, plus three scoreless appearances in the NLDS. Here is how Miklasz describes hitting coach Mark McGwire’s approach before the ninth inning:
In reviewing Game 4, McGwire had urged his hitters to (1) stop chasing the outside pitches out of the strike zone; (2) avoid trying to pull the ball; (3) stay out over the plate, so they could better handle Storen’s fastball on the outside corner.
And here, from Miklasz, are McGwire’s own words:
“This time they understood what he was trying to do with them. The night before, he did it, and we swung at the balls out of the zone. This time, pretty much the same guys were facing him. This time we started taking those pitches, and it made all the difference in the world. It starts with Beltran’s double, and I think that scared them. ‘Uh-oh. What’s going on.’ ”
The “I think that scared them” portion of the quote is the juicy part. But McGwire’s explanation of the Cardinals’ approach offers more tangible evidence of how experience came into play. Storen constantly makes adjustments between outings, and he loves the chess match of closing, trying to beat the other team with his best stuff while also keeping them guessing. He talks about the importance of that all the time. In the biggest spot of the season, he reverted to a formula McGwire, the opposing hitting coach, said he had predicted.
In the end, as Steinberg notes, one slider a hair closer to the strike zone would have made the whole discussion moot. But the Cardinals did win, and they clearly believed their experience played a crucial role.