Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Wilson Ramos tagged out Buster Posey in the seventh inning. Posey was tagged out by Nationals pitcher Aaron Barrett. An earlier version of this colum also incorrectly included the wrong combined record and aggregate age for San Francisco Giants pitchers Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong. Their combined record in 2014 was 24-39, and their aggregate age is 109. This version has been corrected.
The party is over for the Nationals. Sorrowful though it may be for Washington to hear, it should be.
Using a five-game series, just a blink in baseball time, to decide which team advances toward the World Series is preposterously imprecise. The unworthy or the lucky can prosper. Clayton Kershaw can lose twice in four games and be the central reason his Dodgers are done. The last three AL Cy Young winners can start Games 1, 2 and 3 of the Division Series for the Detroit Tigers and be swept. The Angels, who won more games than anybody in baseball, can go winless for October.
Those towns can cry, maybe even whine a little about “the format” or “small sample size.” But the Nats need to look facts in the face. They didn’t embarrass themselves in their season-ending, 3-2 loss to the San Francisco in Game 4 of their National League Division Series on Tuesday night. Every game of this series has been dead serious and close, much different than the Nats’ often ragged or overwhelmed play in 2012 against St. Louis.
This time each team scored just nine runs total. Each of those was a battle, every base a bridge to be taken or a line breached, homely as trench warfare. The Nats lost far too many of those gritty struggles.
“It doesn’t matter how well you do in the regular season,” said Nats reliever Craig Stammen. “You have to be absolutely on top of your game in the playoffs. The margin of error is so small. If you don’t do all the little things absolutely correctly, you’re probably not going to win anything.”
The word that may hurt the most is “anything.” Not even a first-round series. “That about says it. And also we just didn’t hit,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who had a single in four pinch-hit tries, joining many others with little to show: Adam LaRoche .056, Jayson Werth .059, Denard Span .105, Wilson Ramos .118, Ian Desmond .167. Almost all of them had six superior months — and four bad days.
The Nats need clear eyes because this confrontation with the poised, fundamentally sound Giants — World Series champions two seasons ago — showed the Nats exactly what they lack, what baseball will not tolerate and which areas they need to improve so that October suits them as well as it does the Giants and Cards, who will meet in the NLCS, and the Baltimore Orioles, who follow Manager Buck Showalter’s demands precisely. Here’s why the Nats are coming home empty.
If you send the winning run home on a wild pitch (Aaron Barrett); if you can’t field a two-hop grounder back to the mound (Gio Gonzalez); if three players look at each other and none of them picks up a sacrifice bunt attempt (Gonzalez, Anthony Rendon, Ramos); if you can’t throw a strike with the bases loaded and walk home a run (Gonzalez); if you get confused and throw home when no Giant is actually running toward the plate (LaRoche), squandering an out, then you have no business staying at baseball’s October party.
Perhaps most painful for a team with the best ERA in baseball, you don’t deserve to win a playoff series if you lose three games that were started by Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong, combined record 24-39, aggregate age 109.
If you are the Nationals, who’ve won more games than any team in baseball over the past three seasons and the most in the National League this year, you really should go home early from the ball. In a symbol of the way the Nats actually did get enough breaks to win this series, the ball that Barrett tossed to the back stop bounced directly back to catcher Wilson Ramos, who then hurled the ball back to Barrett, who tagged out Buster Posey.“Maybe we should practice that play,” said Barrett, sheepishly.
Fundamentals and baseball temperament count for as much, and sometimes more, than ability in the low-scoring chamber of torments known as the big-league postseason. In those areas, the Nats are not yet a match for the composed, traditional powers of the National League, like the San Francisco Giants.
However, this game and this series did announce one wonderful piece of news for the Nats. A huge piece of their future, one of the tools they need to build an even stronger foundations, just arrived.
That bright light in the sky is Mr. Bryce Harper, real credentialed superstar, blooming before our eyes, blasting mammoth home runs three times in four playoff games, trying to carrying his Nationals back to Washington for a Game 5 all by himself.
That was the high point of this game, and perhaps this whole series for the Nats — the moment when it felt like a Game 5 must surely happen. Then the bullpen gate opened for the bottom of the seventh inning and Matt Thornton, who allowed two singles, and then Barrett emerged.
Perhaps the Nat who least understands, or perhaps least wants to address his October problems, is Gonzalez, who was wild in his two playoff starts in 2012 and gifted the Giants with two unearned second-inning runs on a sequence of fold-under-pressure mistakes. First, he clutched too quickly at a two-hop grounder and botched it. Then he was part of a three-Nat fire drill that turned a simple sacrifice bunt into a hit. Then, he walked home a run in what turned out to be a one-run loss.
Afterward, he said he thought he pitched pretty well, except for “the little things.” Those little things cost two runs, which cost the game, which ended the season. Work on solving that equation this winter.
Two years ago, the Nationals didn’t understand how young and unpolished they were. with the arrival of Matt Williams this spring, they were forced to drill on mundane parts of the game. But there is one huge element of the October game that you can’t practice from March through September, not when you are winning your division by 17 games. The Nationals still have not developed the pressure gene to a sufficient degree. They’ve gotten better. But as the Giants showed, they still aren’t good enough.
“It’s tough to digest, kind of an eerie feeling. We played well enough to win all four games,” said Tyler Clippard. “It doesn’t seem like it should be over. But it is.”
Baseball scripts its October entertainment to put double or triple emphasis on experience, presence under pressure and passion for detail. That’s not all of baseball. But it’s a part. You have to learn it — usually the hard way, by repeated failures — before you can become one of the teams that is doing what the Giants are doing right in front of me now. Dancing.
And waiting for the next party — bigger and even more wonderful party — the one the Nats have still not crashed.
Photos: Images from Game 4
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