Fans around these parts have just figured out what to watch for in a pennant race, and now here comes the Nationals’ first playoff appearance. There are so many questions, and we’re here to help.
Understand this about Major League Baseball’s postseason: Talent is often enough to trump inexperience. Although some key Nats — outfielder Jayson Werth and starter Edwin Jackson come to mind — have shined in late October for other ballclubs, there’s no denying the postseason is uncharted territory for most of their teammates.
That shouldn’t scare Nationals fans. Throughout baseball history, many teams have thrived in the playoffs while relying on core players new to the game’s highest-stakes environment.
New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and starter Andy Pettitte are old hands at this stuff. Back in 1996, however, Jeter was a wet-behind-the-ears rookie and Pettitte was only in his second season in the Yankees’ rotation. Still, Jeter and Pettitte were leaders on those Yankees, whom the Atlanta Braves embarrassed during the first two games of that season’s World Series before New York rallied to win four straight and the franchise’s first championship since 1978. That title triggered the most recent dynastic run from professional sport’s greatest dynasty: The Yankees won four World Series in a five-year span.
Nationals Manager Davey Johnson was in the dugout for a similar kids-growing-up-fast postseason story.
With the New York Mets in 1986, Johnson relied on many playoff novices, outfielder Darryl Strawberry, and pitchers Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling among them. Each time Johnson glances at his World Series championship ring from that year, he’s reminded of how much those players’ unfamiliarity with the postseason hurt the Mets: Not very much.
This season, Johnson guided Washington to the National League East title and baseball’s best record at 98-64. He has 98 reasons to be confident about his team, “and it’s not like you have to do something entirely different in the playoffs,” he said. “You just do the same things you’ve been doing all year long. It’s like I told you at the beginning of the year: We don’t have to try to play over our ability. If we just played to our ability, I knew we could win.
“Heck,” he continued, “some people always try to make this a lot more difficult than it is. They think there’s some magic involved here. You want to know what the magic is? You want to know what the secret is to winning in the playoffs?” Johnson paused and laughed before adding, “The secret to winning in the playoffs is outscoring the opposition. You don’t have to have been there before to do that.”
Sure, most every manager would rather have a top-to-bottom lineup of proven postseason monsters. Yet don’t be surprised if many of the inexperienced Nationals do just fine during their opening act, “because our young guys have responded to challenges all year,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
“Some people will say, ‘Well, the playoffs are different.’ But in my experience, young players, after they get through seeing their first pitch, their first at-bat, et cetera, then it’s just playing baseball. They’ve shown they know how to do that.”
Harper’s season is example No. 1 in the talent-vs.-experience argument. When Harper slumped badly in July (he was one-homer-and-.222-batting-average bad), some said the teenager had worn down in his first big-league season. Some thought he needed an extended rest. Johnson knew better.
Opposing pitchers read scouting reports on Harper and adjusted how they pitched to him. Good hitters have the ability to figure that out, and Harper did. By the stretch, his innate talent enabled him to again flourish. “He showed that the bigger the stage is the more he loves it,” Rizzo said. “Bryce is gonna love the playoffs. He wants to be in those moments.”
The Nationals need their pitchers to embrace their new surroundings. Any team would like its chances with Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman starting the first two games of a playoff series. Behind them, Jackson and Ross Detwiler had late-season “uh-oh” outings. The good news for Jackson and Detwiler is that it’s a new season. They’ll be judged on their next appearance.
In the bullpen, Drew Storen proved he’s back in top closing form. The Nationals wouldn’t be where they are without Tyler Clippard, but the playoffs are here. The time for working out kinks has ended. In the race to 27 outs, count on Johnson sticking with the closer who puts him in the best position to win the last game of a season for the second time in his managerial career.
“This is what it’s all about,” Johnson said. “This is the fun.”
For the first time in 79 years, the District is part it. And if the Nationals are as ready as they seem, there’s no reason why this party couldn’t end in a parade.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
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