As a public service, because few humans wish to repeat a 4-hour 37-minute root canal just for the sake of evaluating the pain more precisely, I watched Game 5 again. Yes, you know which Game 5. The one you’re afraid the devil will have playing on an eternal loop if you do too much bad stuff.
The Chicago Cubs’ 9-8 win over the Washington Nationals was one of the more chilling, complex, bizarre, explosive, shocking and hang-by-a-thread baseball marathons I’ve ever seen. It proved, as we knew before the playoffs started, that the eight teams in the four division series were all unusually good and that the least of them could beat any of the others. In fact, the New York Yankees and Cubs, who entered with the lowest regular season win totals (91 and 92), beat Cleveland (102) and Washington (97).
I discovered, once again, that intelligence of the baseball variety, attention to detail and an almost fanatical will to win, coupled with a chilly poise, are the passcode to open October’s door. The Cubs have them all. That’s why they are reigning World Series champions.
The Nationals do not lack these virtues. If they were paupers when it came to athletic character, they would not have won at least 95 games four times in six seasons and gone to a decisive Game 5 in three of those division series, all of them heart-stopping thrillers that, when you can stand it, are worth re-watching.
But it is now a bald fact that the Nats simply do not — quite — have these subtle baseball strengths in sufficient quantity. Thursday night’s Cubs victory was not a fluke or a night of bad breaks for Washington or debatable umpire rulings. Chicago’s win was built on better fundamentals, brainy trickery, novel strategies and the Nats’ guilt in a half-dozen sins worthy of defeat. And as Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said in his first postgame sentence, “will to win.”
For example, the Cubs treasure the concept of productive outs. Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant got three RBI with groundouts. The Nats, none. The Cubs scored four runs on a Nats wild pitch, a passed ball, a hit batter and a line drive lost in the lights. You could wait months for that many blunders in one game. The Nats also walked six Cubs and made two errors. Worse, they failed to punish the Cubs’ one fat failing: nine walks. The Nats stranded 13 runners.
The Nats’ Nos. 3 and 4 hitters mostly failed. Bryce Harper couldn’t score a man from third with one out and, when he got a waist-high hanging curve with the bases loaded in the seventh, merely produced a sacrifice fly when any kind of hit would probably have reversed the ultimate outcome. Harper has had his homer moments (five) in 19 postseason games, but his .211 average and .315 on-base percentage also identify him as a consistent rally killer.
Ryan Zimmerman, though he drove in four runs in earlier games, had an awful night as cleanup man, a spot Manager Dusty Baker should not have put him in considering the Cubs’ history of tormenting him when he was cast as Harper’s protector. Zimmerman came up four times with two outs and a total of seven men on base, four in scoring position. Result: Three strikeouts and a short flyout on a center-cut curveball. That’s four rallies, DOA.
And, in what hindsight says was a dreadful sentimental mistake, Baker bypassed hypercompetitive Tanner Roark so he could give Gio Gonzalez a chance at redemption for the way he spit the bit in Game 5 in 2012 by turning a 6-0 Nats lead into just 6-3 faster than you could say, “Got something stuck in your throat?” Then, he lasted five innings. This time, he went three, shrinking a lead from 4-1 to 4-3. Dusty was lucky the Cubs stranded four of Gio’s runners.
If you want to describe all of this, what Baker described as “a series of bad events,” as crumbling, be my guest. But there was also a lot of spunk as counterbalance or else so many mistakes would have created a 9-1 game, not 9-8.
The Cubs bring an extra dimension of sophistication that the Nats seldom match. They probably stole two runs from the Nats, maybe more, with defensive subtlety. In the first inning, with super-swift Trea Turner at third, one out and the infield in with Harper batting, Maddon had Bryant hold Turner at third base, cutting at least five feet off his lead. When Harper grounded to second, Turner was thrown out at the plate by two feet. That’s one run in a one-run game.
In the sixth, Zimmerman took a tiny eight-foot lead off first — six feet less than the MLB norm, according to all-seeing Statcast. Perhaps Zim remembered being picked off first base in Game 4 by Jon Lester, equivalent in its rarity to an entirely accurate presidential tweet. Even running on contact with two outs, Zimmerman only reached third base on a double off the left field fence. With six more feet, would third base coach Bob Henley have sent him home? Statcast, in a blizzard of decimal points, says he would have made it. Zim was stranded at third.
Finally, Jose Lobaton got picked off first base to assassinate an eighth-inning rally on a play — the catcher throws behind the runner — that the Cubs have tried 77 times this season. Yes, those get counted, like everything else. It took a challenge and reversal to convict him, but why was the play even close?
A search for Nats plays, or even attempted plays, requiring above-average skulduggery revealed nothing.
The Nationals have an exceptional organization, talented and likable players, a shocking dearth of villains in the last decade and a roster that almost ensures more playoffs in 2018 and a pipeline, plus Maestro Mike Rizzo, that may keep the team not just good but very good for several seasons after that.
But, starting with Game 5 in 2012, the Nats have outscored the St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and now Cubs 60-54 yet lost all four series. That takes talent — at losing one-run games, in which the Nats are 0-8 in the postseason. Something is missing.
In the Nats’ clubhouse after their loss, there were lots of solemn faces and ballplayer-style hugs with hard backslaps that contained both condolences for the night and congratulations for the whole season. But, except for Max Scherzer, who seemed to shake and twitch with suppressed fury, and Jayson Werth, who was almost addled with disorientation that a seven-year quest had ended in “that game,” there was no outward anger.
Perhaps more telling, there was little sense of anger boiling under the surface. Matt Wieters sat for ages on the stool at his locker, bringing big league dignity to mortification, as he sat ready to answer for all failings. A few others like Daniel Murphy had looks behind their eyes you might not want to know.
It’s no accident that Scherzer, Murphy, Wieters and Werth are probably the Nats’ most passionate students of inside baseball — the art of doing something crafty, often just inside the rules, which makes the other team want to beat its head on the bat rack. Some young Nats like Turner will probably fit that mold. But overall the Nats are a team of above-average everyday intelligence but merely average IQ about the game they play for a living.
Passion for details of the game, hidden edges, the lust to make an opponent look like a fool — to pick off Lobaton, keep Turner from scoring or Zimmerman from trying to score — is also often a measure of competitive passion. The hardest losers are also often the hardest students. Give me hard losers. Cull the rest.
Long ago, I asked the coiled-spring guru Gene Mauch, “What is the worst thing about managing?” Mauch, who managed nearly 4,000 games and played in more than 300 more, thought before answering, a surprising quality 30 years ago, now extinct. “The day you realize that you care more than they do,” he said.
The Nationals care. They work. They are good teammates. They don’t quit when they are behind or when injuries arrive. And they are an enormously talented and likable team — an unusual combination. But if they think they are in the top 10 percent of MLB teams in the past 40 years when it comes to being obsessed, to being driven and despising defeat, they would be incorrect.
The Nats don’t lack much. They’ll have a chance to search for the piece that’s missing in 2018 when they will have as good, or perhaps an even better, team on paper with Adam Eaton back in left field for Werth, the arrival perhaps of Victor Robles, plus whatever is added in trades, promotions or free agent signings.
But if there is a pill that makes men hate losing, loathe it and practically shake with frustration when they are thwarted, order 25 cases of ’em.
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