CHICAGO — We can pull our hair about Sammy Solis over Brandon Kintzler, and go gray — or downright bald — thinking about whether the Washington Nationals should have pitched to Anthony Rizzo or granted an intentional pass. These are the debates at the bar and on the Metro with the Nationals’ season right at the edge of the cliff. It’s a cliff that is familiar to these folks, and here we are again.
But what’s not debatable — and what’s affecting this series as much as any decision Manager Dusty Baker made — is that the Nationals, as a team, are hitting .121 over the three games of this National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs. They have scored seven runs. They have 11 — 11! — hits.
“We know that it’s right around the corner,” Baker said.
That corner, Dusty, had better be close.
We must account for a couple of things here, with the Nationals trailing the Cubs 2-1 in the series and facing elimination Tuesday at Wrigley Field. First, this is playoff baseball. The Cubs won the World Series last fall. Know what they hit on the way to the title? .233. The October average for their opponents, the Cleveland Indians: .222. What the Nats are producing isn’t completely atypical at this time of year — even for the teams that advance.
Second, in a baseball environment in which small sample sizes are easily dismissed, this is almost the definition of just that. Over the course of the season, the Nats had 5,553 at-bats. In this series, thus far, they have just 91. What can you really tell? The Cubs lead the series, and they’re hitting .179.
And that brings us to the problem: Postseason series, particularly of the five-game variety, are small sample sizes. And the Nationals realize this: A four-game series is an even smaller sample than a five-game series. So why don’t we provide people with as much evidence as we can that we’re actually a good offensive club?
“Runs have been pretty tough to come by,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who drove in the only one the Nats scored in Monday’s excruciating 2-1 loss — a run that came about only because Daniel Murphy had reached base before him on a flat-out dropped flyball from Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber. The Nats never, on Monday, had more than a single hit in an inning.
Consider: The Nationals’ lone victory thus far was built on the strength of the five-run eighth inning of Saturday’s Game 2, a delirious frame in which Bryce Harper and Zimmerman hit series-altering home runs.
But in the other 26 innings of this series, the Nationals have seven — seven! — hits and two — two! — runs. In those 26 innings that aren’t the eighth of Game 2, they’re hitting .083.
“Our back’s against the wall,” Baker said. “So we’ve got to get them tomorrow. We’ve got to get those hits — and, hopefully, they don’t.”
This has to be more than hope. These results must change, or the season will end Tuesday against Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta. Arrieta’s a former Cy Young winner, you say? Too bad. He’s the foe. They have to hit him.
Let’s go through this piece by piece. Any such examination must start at the top. Nats leadoff man Trea Turner figured to be a key against the Cubs because, when these two clubs met for four games in June at Nationals Park, Turner reached base 10 times, swiped seven bags and nearly caused a mutiny in the Chicago clubhouse.
“I haven’t been nervous for a pitch of this series,” Turner said. What to do, then? Electric shock therapy, to tingle the nerves a bit? Turner is 0 for 12 with five strikeouts.
“I don’t feel bad,” Turner said. “Just swinging at bad pitches and taking ones I should hit. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t hit the ones that you should, then it’s going to be pretty tough.”
In hitter’s parlance, that’s called “being in-between.” Unable to commit, you get yourself out.
Turner’s struggles severely limit the Washington offense. Harper, the Nats’ most dangerous hitter, came up only once on Monday with a runner on base. Same for third baseman Anthony Rendon, whose only hit in 10 at-bats was a solo homer in the first inning Saturday night. Murphy, batting cleanup, is 1 for 11 — and he realizes it.
“I’m just not getting on base enough and creating enough traffic out there,” Murphy said.
Odd for a group from greater Washington to plead for more traffic. But there it is — desperation.
That one time Harper came up with a runner on base Monday was in the third, when he grounded toward second — and Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist booted the ball, putting runners on the corners with two outs in a scoreless game.
Rendon came up next. The Nats, by that point, had studied how Wrigley was playing on an unseasonably warm day. The breeze off Lake Michigan wasn’t its legendary self — neither howling in, nor out. In batting practice, they saw it affect balls across the diamond.
“In BP, the ball to the left of the [center field] scoreboard was traveling,” Zimmerman said. “To the right, it wasn’t.”
So what did Rendon do? Barreled a ball up off Cubs lefty Jose Quintana — but sent it to right center.
“I thought it had a really good chance to get in the gap,” Murphy said. But also headed to the gap was Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward, an all-world defender.
“It looked like he was just coasting out there,” Rendon said.
He was, because he had it. End of threat.
“I thought we took a lot more positive swings with guys in scoring position,” said Matt Wieters, the catcher who’s 0 for 8 in the series.
Wieters would know. With two outs and Werth on first following Quintana’s only walk, Wieters got a 1-2 curveball from the lefty. He put a jolt into it, sending it to the gap in right-center — but further from Heyward and closer to center fielder Jon Jay.
“I thought I was scoring,” Werth said.
But there was that breeze, pushing balls from the right field stands.
“I felt like I hit mine a little bit better than it went,” Wieters said.
Jay reached the warning track — but caught up to it. End of threat, again.
“That saved the game, really, for them — those defensive plays in the outfield,” Baker said.
They have one more game — at least — to solve this problem. They cannot win Tuesday without scoring runs. How to fix it?
“Just didn’t hit it far enough,” Harper suggested, thinking specifically of the balls off the bats of Rendon and Wieters. “They caught ’em. You hit ’em in the stands, they don’t catch ’em.”
The Nationals are down to what could be their final nine innings. Somehow, they must dispense with the previous 27 and regain the feeling of the one time up when they injected life into this series. If they don’t inject life into it Tuesday, it’ll be over, and winter will once again be here earlier than scheduled.
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