Sports | Perspective
October 2, 2017 at 12:10 PM
And now, we wait.
/hums to self/
Is it Friday yet?
The 162nd game of the Washington Nationals' season ended at 7:28 p.m. Sunday. If you thought that interminable slog was long — consider that the opposing Pittsburgh Pirates have played 19,569 games dating from 1891 and had never previously needed 4 hours 22 minutes to play nine innings — then try filling the time between that final out and the first pitch of the postseason, Friday against the Chicago Cubs.
That's 119 hours 57 minutes.
Don't check the clock. Please. But then, what to do? Work on your whistling? Learn to whittle? Take up the guitar?
"The next four days are going to be a lot of fun to just relax mentally, physically for everybody in this clubhouse," Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper said. "I'm excited to hang out with my family and enjoy that with them — and look forward to Friday."
As if it'll ever get here.
This is, actually, serious stuff. No sport is defined by daily rhythms like baseball. Between April 3 and Oct. 1 — two days shy of six months — the Nationals had back-to-back days off twice: once in May, when they had a scheduled day off followed by a rainout, and then a four-day break for the All-Star Game, in which five of their players participated.
And the task now: Chill for four days, then somehow, as Manager Dusty Baker said, "come out smoking on Friday."
The layoff for baseball's six division winners — this year, three days for the American League teams, four days for the National League — is the only lousy aspect of the current playoff format. The wild-card game is, to be sure, a nine-inning tightrope walk of which you want no part. Too harrowing. Too risky.
But what if you win it? The schedule for a wild-card winner is at least a distant cousin of the regular season: Game 162, a day off, the all-or-nothing playoff game, another day off, then the division series. What the Nats — and the Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers — are experiencing can't be traced back to the regular season's ancestry.
That has to play a role in how much success wild-card winners have had since the current format was introduced in 2012. In those five years, wild cards — always pitted against the No. 1 seed, owner of the best record in its league — have won at least one series four times. In 2014, San Francisco and Kansas City used wild-card victories to shoot all the way to the World Series. The record of wild-card teams in division series against the top seed: 5-5. Even money.
The Nats don't face the wild-card winner. But they do face the layoff, and they must figure out how to handle it. It's not what will determine whether they beat the Cubs. But it's a factor that they haven't handled particularly well in the past.
The Nationals' three previous postseason appearances have all come with the current playoff structure, and they have all come after division titles, never even with a true pennant race to push them across the finish line. Once, in 2012, they had three days off before playing Game 1 — and they beat the Cardinals that day. Twice, in both 2014 and again last year, they had four days between the end of the regular season and the postseason opener. They lost the first game of the division series both times, scoring just two runs against the Giants in '14 and three runs against the Dodgers last year .
"We're going to have a bunch of days off here, so we need to stay in rhythm as much as we can," said 38-year-old Jayson Werth, who wasn't removed from Sunday's monstrosity until the ninth inning. "Sometimes those off days can be tough on good teams."
The Cubs, facing the same layoff as Washington, will try to fill the off days by playing simulated games on Tuesday and Wednesday at Wrigley Field before traveling Wednesday evening and working out at Nationals Park on Thursday. But the Cubs didn't sputter to the finish, going 13-4 down the stretch, putting further behind their (inexplicably) slow start.
The Nats did sputter — understandably, given they haven't played a truly important game in five months. Still. After clinching the National League East title Sept. 10, Washington went 9-10 over the remainder of the schedule. Yes, Baker often using patched-together lineups, trying to balance the need for rest with the need to remain sharp. But the Nats also played some sloppy baseball in that time, the kind that is supposed to be cleansed from championship-caliber teams when the calendar says October. Yet it can fester.
Baker's schedule called for a day off Monday — just like the Cubs — followed by workouts with some live pitching Tuesday and Wednesday. Not fully simulated games, but . . . well, you have to do something, and it's guesswork on how to deal with it.
"We'll go back to fundamentals," Baker said, and that's full-on spring-training mode, with pitchers' fielding practice, infielders taking rounds of groundballs, outfielders shagging flies and hitting the cutoff, going over signs — the rhythms of February resurfacing in October.
Who knows? Maybe the four days off slow down the Cubs and tighten up the Nats. Maybe what Washington needed to awaken a sluggish offense was simply meaningful at-bats in a pressurized situation. Any of that is possible.
It's a lot to think about while you twiddle your thumbs and stare into space.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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