“You definitely look back at them, obviously, the first week or so after they’re done,” said Ryan Zimmerman, the only person to have appeared in each of the Nats’ painful playoff ousters. “You sit back, and that’s what you do. You’re human. You kind of try to assess what went right, what went wrong, if this would’ve happened, if that would’ve happened. That’s just what you do.
“But honestly, for me, then it’s [over]. There’s nothing you can do about it two weeks later. I think you can definitely learn from it.”
Let’s do a little exercise, then, which could be read as some exorcising instead. Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg are the only Nationals players or coaches who have witnessed, up close and personal, how horrifying a coin-toss game can be. With the Milwaukee Brewers in town for the National League wild-card game Tuesday night, it’s the fans, not the players, who will hallucinate the crime-scene outlines on the field.
That’s where Ian Desmond got a glove on Daniel Descalso’s grounder in 2012, but two runs scored to tie the game anyway.
That’s where Charlie Culberson caught Daniel Murphy’s popup, induced by Clayton Kershaw, with the tying run at second and the winning run at first in 2016.
That’s where Jose Lobaton, with the tying run on second base in the eighth inning, was picked off first base not because he didn’t beat the throw back to the bag, but because instant replay ruled he came off the base while Anthony Rizzo’s tag was still on him.
There’s more, much more, but this being a family publication, we’ll leave it at that.
I bring all this up not to force people to relive the pain. Rather, think of all that gruesomeness framed differently: Man, the Nationals have been close to advancing in the playoffs, and it’s some sort of fluke that they haven’t.
Review these games not so you dread heading to the ballpark Tuesday night, but so you’re cleansed. Max Scherzer is on the mound for Washington. When has that not been great for the Nats?
Well, technically, that would be when he started Game 5 of the 2016 division series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, allowed a game-tying homer to Joc Pederson leading off the seventh on his 99th pitch, then watched Dusty Baker, then the manager, use five other pitchers to get through the rest of the inning. They entered that inning leading 1-0. They exited trailing 4-1.
Oh, and Scherzer was at the center of the inconceivable fifth inning of the fifth game of the 2017 division series against the Cubs. We remember that inning because Wieters, then the catcher, had the worst 20 minutes of his professional life — allowing a passed ball on a strikeout that would have ended the inning, throwing the ball into right field to allow the runners to advance, then being called for catcher’s interference — all before Scherzer issued a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch.
“We’ve had heartbreaks in both those games,” Scherzer said Monday. “Hopefully tomorrow’s different.”
Considering what the fan base has endured, doesn’t it have to be?
“I don’t want to put any pressure on our players,” Manager Dave Martinez said.
There shouldn’t be any, because it can’t get more painful than it already has been. Consider a couple of amazing elements to the Nationals’ postseason history. Yeah, it’s not the Red Sox pre-2004 or the Cubs pre-2016, but little elements can help you understand how close they were to replacing pain with joy.
Eight of the Nationals’ past nine losses in the postseason — three against the Giants in 2014, three against the Dodgers in 2016, and two of the three against the Cubs in 2017 — came by one run. What are the odds of that? That includes the 18-inning, 2-1 gut punch in Game 2 against San Francisco, not to mention the Game 5s against Los Angeles (4-3) and Chicago (9-8).
In those three series, the Nationals’ record is 5-9, but their run-differential is plus-8
. They led in all three of their Game 5s: 6-0 against the Cardinals in 2012, 1-0 against the Dodgers after six innings in ’16, and 4-1 against the Cubs after two innings in ’17.
At some point, doesn’t that have to flip? Well, maybe it already has. Gio Gonzalez, the Game 5 starter in both 2012 and 2017, will be at Nationals Park Tuesday night — wearing a Brewers uniform. Considering he gagged up half of that six-run advantage against St. Louis and left after allowing three runs in three wobbly innings to Chicago five years later, maybe a portion of this cleanse could be achieved simply by not having Gio on the roster. Poison someone else, pal.
Jokes aside, turnover matters. If Howie Kendrick starts instead of Zimmerman at first base Tuesday, the only players to be manning their same positions as they did in the 2016 Game 5 would be Scherzer and Anthony Rendon. The bullpens are different. The benches are different. Juan Soto and Victor Robles? Pffff. Robles was on the 2017 roster, but Baker never used him. What do they know?
“There’s an extra gear here in postseason baseball,” Scherzer said.
These Nats might, finally, be in position to push down the clutch and find it. Count me among those who believe it matters that they arrived in the postseason on a different path. Never before have they had to push into the final week of the regular season. The 2012 team lost 10 of its last 19 regular-season games and still won the N.L. East by four. In 2014 and ’16, they had a double-digit lead in the division by mid-September. In ’17, the lead was 15 to start September — and 20 by season’s end.
These Nats didn’t clinch a postseason berth until Game 157 and didn’t secure home-field until Game 161. Oh, and they won their last eight games.
“We’ve won four divisions and haven’t won the World Series in that route,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “Maybe this is the route to grinding it out till the last game and coming into the playoffs hot, and not with a three- or four-day layover like we have in the past. Maybe this is the road to success for us.”
That’s the way to think of it. Relive the pain only to convince yourself it can’t be that bad again. This season was wholly different. Maybe October could be, too.
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