Nothing in pro sports is more important in the postseason than mastering the moment, not letting it rule and torture you.
Master of the Moment, a compliment for the athlete who can channel adrenaline and execute the quickest judgments with the clearest mind, might almost be written inside the bands on those championship rings.
The kind of rings the Washington Nationals still have not gotten anywhere close enough to see, much less grasp.
On Friday night, before a sellout crowd of 43,898 in Nationals Park, the Nats lost Game 1 of the National League Division Series, 3-0, to the Chicago Cubs because, in the tightest moments, they did small but vital things wrong.
Stephen Strasburg took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of a scoreless game before third baseman Anthony Rendon dropped a ball out of his glove on a routine play, something he may not have done in years. If you aren’t focused with a no-hitter in progress, when will you be? Rendon, no doubt, was alert, yet he couldn’t make the reflexive, instantaneous transfer of ball in glove to ball in hand.
You can score it just a simple E5. Or you can call it another of those almost microscopic but lethal manifestations of October pressure.
“We got lucky there,” Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said.
Strasburg, one strike from being out of that sixth inning with the game still 0-0 and his no-hitter intact, made one of baseball’s oldest but still most forehead-smacking mistakes. He threw an 0-2 fastball over the middle of the plate. The safest assumption on earth is that this was not his intention after an evening of almost perfect pitches by the dozen. But Bryant, grateful, lashed it to right field for a single that scored the Cubs’ first run.
You can say Strasburg, on a night when he allowed only three hits and one walk in seven innings, with 10 strikeouts and zero earned runs, simply made a poor pitch. But also at the worst of times. Pressure?
On Bryant’s hit, right fielder Bryce Harper made a blunder that is all too familiar even to his ardent fans.
With a swift runner, Javier Baez, running with two outs and no realistic play at the plate, Harper still heaved the ball home, overthrowing the cutoff man. Bryant took second on the throw, in a close play. Once there, he scored on Anthony Rizzo’s single to right on a line drive — baseball never passes up a teachable moment — that Harper came up inches short of catching.
Harper owned the overthrow. But that extra gift run felt enormous. And it helped spoil a night when Rizzo’s comment on Strasburg was probably the most accurate evaluation: “He was the best pitcher I’ve seen, probably.”
Meanwhile, the world champion Cubs did nothing special — no long home runs or spectacular plays — but they also made no mistakes. The lack of blunders, at least in baseball, applies a pressure that is almost as efficient as brilliant play.
Their Game 1 pitcher was the perfect choice: Kyle Hendricks — a tempter, a man who plays on the impatient and nerves of hitters, especially in big games, like the five vital ones he started for the Cubs last postseason, including Game 7 of the World Series. The Nats actually managed two hits off Hendricks, one of which actually left the infield, plus none against two Cubs relievers.
“Strasburg was outstanding. You had to pitch as well as Kyle did in order to beat him,” Maddon said.
“He was tricking us tonight,” Nats Manager Dusty Baker said of Hendricks, the Dartmouth grad. “Seems like those kind of guys give us more trouble than guys who throw hard.”
Technically, trickery by pitchers is within the rules. Although Nats hitters, who seldom use the opposite field against soft tossers in October, act like they don’t believe it. Afterward, Hendricks revealed he’d basically only used two pitches: sinker and change-up. Trickery doesn’t get much simpler than that.
“I’m just a laid-back guy, but you’re definitely feeling it,” Hendricks said of the loud crowd which contained perhaps only a thousand or so blue-clad Cubs fans. “The energy . . . and the crowd was pretty cool, but we’ve played some big games. So we were ready to take that adrenaline on and use it to our advantage.”
Maybe that is the Cubs quote the Nats should put on their bulletin board.
Given that 2-0 lead, the Cubs proceeded to victory with calm, professional confidence. Of any late-game strategy, Baker said, “It’s kind of a moot point when you don’t score.”
That state of Cubs calmness must be rattled quickly if the Nats intend to advance. In Game 2, a pair of southpaws meet. The Cubs will send out one of the toughest postseason-tested legends of his generation, Jon Lester. The Nats will counter with Gio Gonzalez, coming off a fine season, but also a man with nettlesome October memories, like the 6-0 lead he was given but couldn’t hold in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS.
It’s no use pretending that team histories and personal player histories don’t exist. Everyone knows them, just as they knew the 2016 Cubs had to overcome the incredible burden of going 108 years without a World Series triumph. All the Nats have against them is three trips to the NLDS, and three eliminations, two of them in thrilling series, plus this one-game deficit to the Cubs.
It feels like a lot. But a couple of wins would change that. Max Scherzer waits to pitch Game 3 in Chicago. A team that can master the moment, not be its victim, could perhaps look on this as an opportunity. Perhaps even these Nats.
The moments that pose the greatest test in baseball are the ones that arrive under the greatest pressure in October. In other words, the ones that the Nats still seem to understand and cope with most.
Throughout their six years as one of baseball’s best regular season teams, the Nats have made a pleasant habit of romping to NL East Division titles without much pennant race pressure. Should they lose more games so they can practice feeling tense and miserable more often? No, didn’t think you’d say so.
Yet in October, the Nats often seem almost excellent, but not quite excellent enough. Consider this: The Nats’ past six one-run games in the postseason have all been losses. They outscored the Giants and Dodgers 32-28 in the NLDS in 2014 and 2016. But they keep score by wins.
To add salt to the wound, go back to the Nats’ final defeat of 2012 to the Cards. They led by two runs entering the ninth yet still lost 9-7. Close games, slit throats.
For the Nats to advance in October, much less play in or win a World Series, they will have to be — just slightly — better masters of themselves, of their nervous systems when everything seems to jangle, and of their judgment in those instants of decision that decide close, tense playoff baseball games.
The Nats seldom admit that they have a pressure problem, or a close-game issue, or that The Moment of Crisis is anything but their friend. But this loss should be a hard reminder.
“These guys are a pretty cool bunch of hard-nosed dudes,” Baker said before the game. After two singles worth of offense for the night, plus two blunders leading to two gift runs, Dusty may have trouble convincing others of his view.
But if what he says of his players is true, they better start showing it.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.