The Washington Nationals and the 2012 NLCS: What an ‘almost’

Thomas Boswell
Columnist October 14, 2012

No Game Today.

In every pro ballpark that’s what the sign says outside the home plate gate on off days. Those words also greet you and chill you on what feels like the longest off day of all: the 3,000 hours, give or take, until spring training.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

The Nationals have no game today. But they could have, and several more, too. They might be playing the Giants now for the National League pennant.

Why aren’t they?

First, let’s look at the big picture and be honest.

The Cardinals won the NL Division Series because they were the better team. Late in the season, the streaky Cards got hot. They doubled the score on the Nats in the playoffs: 32-16. Come on, who deserves to advance? Don’t drive yourself crazy nit-picking all winter. Answer: St. Louis.

The Nats were 10 games better over the whole year and, head to head, ended up 6-6. That doesn’t count. The Cards were better at the right time.

Second, the Nats were hit by big-time pressure in the last few weeks. Everybody reacts differently to pennant race, playoff and, for that matter, World Series pressure. There are stress levels the young Nats haven’t even reached yet. But facing an elimination game and a winner-take-all game is a great education. You don’t know how your heart will beat until you’re there.

Gio Gonzalez looked like a man on a burning deck early in Game 1. In a hairy jam in Game 5, he was less rattled. Though “improving” from four walks to three in a bad inning is a relative term. Bryce Harper was anxious, chasing and 1 for 18 in the first four games before having a triple and a homer. As they say in the pool halls, “you have to pay to learn.”

Postseason isn’t about learning the game. It’s about learning yourself. The Cardinals already read that book. And the schooling showed.

The best compliment to the Nats, both in talent and team temperament, is that they came within one strike of winning back-to-back pressure games against a team that, within 13 days, clubbed them 12-2, 10-4, 12-4 and 8-0.

The experience gap between two teams may never have been greater in the postseason than in this matchup, with the Nationals being the majors’ second-youngest team. Yet the Nats ignored and overcame it. Almost.

And what an “almost.” You may not want to revisit the Game 5 tape. Yadier Molina took a 2-2 slider that missed the low-outside corner by two or three inches. Perhaps he remembered Drew Storen had struck out the previous hitter in the same count on the same pitch in the same spot.

The next hitter, David Freese, checked his swing by one inch.

Or, at most, two inches. Ump Ed Hickox got the appeal right, saving the Cards from elimination. Nice goin’, Ed. How ’bout blowin’ one sometime?

Oh, sorry.

I’d get a photo of that “Freese frame,” but it brings back memories. In ’79, a Post photographer gave me a picture with his caption: “Eddie Murray’s grand slam wins Game 7 of World Series.” In reality, Murray’s blast was caught at the fence. The O’s blew a three-games-to-one Series lead.

Before we say goodbye to Game 5, let’s be blunt about why it was lost. The Cards walked one man; the Nats walked eight. That’ll do it. Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Storen, all power arms, nibbled when the proper strategy (they all had sufficient leads) was aggression. The result: seven walks that led directly to five gift runs in a 9-7 loss.

Gonzalez walked the leadoff man in the fourth. He scored. In the fifth, he walked three men to force a runner on first base all the way around to score. Jackson walked the leadoff man in the seventh. He scored. And, after getting ahead in the count on Molina and Freese, Storen threw “chase” pitches on 2-2 both times. Then with the count full, he overthrew and missed by plenty to both men. Those walks ended up as the tying and winning runs.

“Free passes, that’s not the way to win ballgames,” said Manager Davey Johnson. “To not go after them at the end was not fun to watch. . . . We proved our worth and we just need to let this be a lesson and learn from it, have more resolve. . . . Just got a little too cautious. . . . a little hiccup here at the end.”

Johnson had a couple of hiccups, too. He used Storen, to keep him sharp, for 11 pitches in Game 3. When Storen ended up throwing 26 pitches to win Game 4, then gave up the series-losing hit on his 28th pitch in Game 5, the natural second guess was that Johnson hadn’t worked Storen that hard in a three-day span all season. But Storen touched 97 mph in Game 5, sat at 95-96 and had a sharp slider. What else matters?

Johnson also chose not to intentionally walk Pete Kozma with men on second and third, the score 7-7 and two outs in the ninth of Game 5. Why not walk Kozma (who had been 3 for 15, but with a homer) and force the Cards to pinch-hit backup catcher Tony Cruz (the only man left). That would have forced closer Jason Motte, who’d already pitched one inning, out of the game.

That’s an option. But few managers would choose it because first base wasn’t open until the count on Kozma was 1-2. You seldom walk a man who already has two strikes against him to face a similar hitter with a 0-0 count.

Luckily for the world’s sanity, Stephen Strasburg wasn’t missed and become a footnote, not an issue. Fifth starter Ross Detwiler joined the four-man postseason rotation and had a 0.00 ERA in the Nats’ win in Game 4. Of course, maybe Strasburg could’ve topped Detwiler and gone sub-zero.

There’s one theory left to keep the Strasburg chestnut roasting. A few maintain that if Strasburg had kept pitching, Detwiler would’ve moved ahead of Jackson in the Nats rotation. That’s wrong.

Jackson is a postseason experienced righty, who was sharp in his last regular season start and also fanned 10 Cards in an August win. The only mark against him was an awful September start in St. Louis.

Detwiler, a lefty (the Cards kill ’em), gave up 12 runs in 71 / 3 innings in his last two regular season starts. No one ever considered pushing him ahead of Jackson. Proving: You never know. Detwiler came up huge.

No Game Today.

That haunting phrase is going to stick around awhile. But it will recede eventually and the memory of 100 wins in ’12 will come back in focus.

Then, we’ll think: No game today, but so many more to come.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell.

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