Maybe I made a mistake the other night when, after waiting 349 days, I finally watched recordings of Games 4 and 5 of last year’s National League Division Series between the Dodgers and Nationals. I wondered whether I could learn something to help analyze the Cubs-Nats NLDS that starts next Friday at Nationals Park.
Here’s what I learned: I got heart palpitations just from re-watching those games. We have only one week left to get our blood pressure under control. Some fans may need a 24/7 Valium drip if the Nationals finally win a postseason series and keep playing games like those 2016 thrillers not just for one week but for two or three weeks or even as many as 27 days.
After a pleasantly bland season in which the Nats romped to a division title, I almost had forgotten what Nationals Park looks like in the playoffs. It’s not just “standing-room-only”; it’s “only people standing” because if you sit down, you can’t see. It’s men with hands over their faces, women screaming and kids thinking, “What’s wrong with Mom and Dad?”
I wonder whether the Nats remember. In recent weeks, they rested so often for “general soreness” that even regulars who have never been hurt all year will miss 15 to 20 games. Are they ready for such a shock to their systems? The Cubs, who didn’t clinch their division until Wednesday, just came through a real pennant race.
Maybe, this weekend at home against the Pirates, Dusty Baker could have the dugout bench booby-trapped with electric voltage — nothing too bad, just enough of a shock to make everybody’s hair stand straight up. That’s what’s coming.
“These guys know what they have to do. I don’t have to give them speeches. I gave those in spring training,” said Baker, who was so relaxed throughout Game 5 that he sometimes seemed to have a private smile of enjoyment. “It’s a pretty cool group of guys. They’re calm . . . but fierce. It’s going to be nice.”
As we all know but tend to forget, the playoffs aren’t usually about esoteric stats or which team has the better lineup, rotation or bullpen on paper. It’s about which team plays better baseball under incredible roaring pressure.
It’s about situational hitting and bullpen matchups. It’s about one-run games; the lopsided games take care of themselves. It’s about blood and guts, heart and soul and all that B-movie nonsense. And it’s about the breaks, the bounce of the ball or which outfielder gets a great jump — or doesn’t quite — on a long flyball.
Each player copes with such stress in his own way.
“Normally, I’m humble,” said Ryan Madson, who has a 2.91 ERA in a dozen playoff series. “But in the postseason, even if it’s internal, I think, ‘Have fun. Show off. Be cocky.’ ”
Next week, I will no doubt succumb to habit and analyze everything. But it will, as Jayson Werth reminded me recently, “all mean nothing. It’s about who plays best in the moments that matter most.” He knows. Last year, Werth had a superb statistical playoff with a 1.188 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. But twice in Game 5, with a man on third and one out, he had fastballs over the plate early in counts and fouled them back; he ended up striking out both times. Two sacrifice flies might have meant a 5-4 win, not a 4-3 loss, and a trip to the NL Championship Series.
You don’t have to tell him. He remembers. Just like Anthony Rendon knows that if Carlos Ruiz’s three-hop smash had been a couple of inches lower, he would be on the MLB highlight films for starting a rally-killing double play. Instead, Ruiz got a crucial RBI hit in Game 5 that bounced off the edge of Rendon’s glove.
Trea Turner may not remember that he hit .318 in his first playoff series or that he robbed the Dodgers of a double with a diving catch on the first play of Game 5. He will remember that Justin Turner’s eventual game-deciding, two-run triple was on a blast that an excellent center fielder, such as Michael A. Taylor this season, catches — maybe. Turner, an outfielder by necessity, didn’t do much wrong. But he was just imperfect enough to come up a half-step short of a catch at the 402-foot sign.
Of course, it helps if the third base coach doesn’t get a man thrown out by 30 feet at home plate to end an inning. Or if Baker doesn’t replace the NL Cy Young Award winner after 99 pitches in a 1-1 game to call for a reliever nicknamed “Scrabble,” who throws four pitches, all balls, and gets the loss.
Analysis of October is fine fun, but it tempts us to miss the fabulous logic-mocking danger in every moment of the playoffs. Everybody says, “It’s a different sport.” But they don’t tell you the new game is hot potato with hand grenades.
“You remember the rush, the adrenaline. I can’t wait. For fans, it’s the most exciting thing in the world. For us, it’s 10 times as great. But you don’t remember the details much,” Nats reliever Sammy Solis said, pausing before saying, “except one.”
Would that be the change-up Ruiz slapped off Rendon’s glove in Game 5 to drive in the go-ahead run? “It’s been eating at me for a year,” Solis said.
Last October, the Dodgers were favored because their starting pitching, plus closer Kenley Jansen, was so strong that it might well neuter the Nats’ top hitters.
Oh? The Nats battered Dodgers pitchers, including a 7.06 ERA for Clayton Kershaw and a 6.75 ERA for Jansen. Daniel Murphy, Werth, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman had an astronomical on-base percentage of .517. Jose Lobaton and Chris Heisey each added an unexpected homer and three RBI.
In fact, the Nats outscored L.A. 24-19. But Washington lost three one-run games. And the Nats lost them because they didn’t play quite as well under pressure as the Dodgers, especially when it came to situational hitting or deceitful details that seem tiny in June but bite you in the autumn. Like Harper getting picked off in Game 5 by a 20-year-old well known for only one thing: his pickoff move.
“Nobody tends to score as much in the playoffs,” Zimmerman said recently. “So when you do get opportunities, you really have to take advantage of them.”
This weekend will provide a few more games at Nationals Park amid well-deserved congratulatory calm at the end of a fine season. The Nats have won at least 95 games for the fourth time in six seasons. How remarkable is that? The Cubs have won 95 games four times since World War II — 72 years.
In the past 40 years, just 10 of MLB’s 30 franchises have had more 95-win seasons than the Nats have had in just the past six years. Those are summers of fun. But what comes next won’t be. It will be some variation on exquisite agony.
One week to gear up, one week to realize and totally accept that the grueling trial of playoff baseball — not designed for fairness but for thrills, not a proving ground for statistics but an arena for heroes and goats — is about to begin.
Just make sure those defibrillators are charged.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
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