Sunday, October 14, 2012

Washington Nationals Fall One Strike Short

I still find it impossible to believe that the Nationals lost the game when they were ahead in the ninth, with two outs and two strikes- twice- on the opposing team.  An unbelievable meltdown that just crushed the spirit of all the Nats followers.  Luckily, I'm a casual fan so I'm just in stunned disbelief instead of soul-crushing heartbreak but this game may haunt DC for awhile.  We needed a winner.  It's been years since DC United hoisted a trophy, to say nothing of the drought for the Wizards, Redskins and the "Never won a Cup" Caps. 

Washington Nationals Fall One Strike Short Against St. Louis Cardinals In NLDS Game 5

(By Adam Kilgore, Washington Post, 13 October 2012)

The question of how baseball could be so cruel to this city may be answered some day. It existed in horrible form in the nation’s capital for decades, and then it vanished for 33 years. It came back gnarled and wretched for seven more seasons, only to yield to this blissful summer, to the moment Friday past midnight when Drew Storen stood on the mound at chilled Nationals Park and, with two outs in the ninth inning, threw 13 pitches that could have moved the Washington Nationals four wins from the World Series.  The St. Louis Cardinals would not allow it. Baseball, this town’s cold mistress, the sport that dares you to love it, would not let it happen. The Nationals led the Cardinals by six runs after three innings. They led by two runs after eight innings. Washington’s miserable relationship with baseball had been exorcised, until it materialized in a more wrenching, twisted fashion than ever seen before.

The defending world champions would not die until they scored four runs off Storen in the top of the ninth inning, snatched a 9-7 victory in Game 5 of the National League Division Series and left 45,966 stunned souls to ponder what they had just witnessed: consecutive, two-run singles from Daniel Descalso and Peter Kozma, two pesky middle infielders at the bottom of the Cardinals’ fearsome lineup.  “There’s a bad taste in my mouth,” Storen said. “It’s going to stay there for a couple months, and it’s probably never going to leave.”

The Nationals won 100 games this season, more than any team in the majors. They captured the National League East crown. They delivered a baseball team Washington embraced like none in a generation, or maybe two, or maybe more. When it ended suddenly Friday night, like the arrival of an October cold snap, the players walked into a silent clubhouse with plastic sheets rolled up above their lockers, never to be used for the intended purpose.  “You can see the see finish line and taste it,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “You’re an out or two or a pitch or two away. And you don’t win it. You got to get all 27 outs before you can pack up the bats. We don’t know what to do tomorrow. It’s Saturday, and we don’t have a game.”

They would have played Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday at Nationals Park. Manager Davey Johnson made the easy decision in the ninth inning, leading 7-5, and gave the ball to Storen, the 24-year-old who saved 43 games last year and regained his top form late this season after rehabbing from April elbow surgery.  “We had the right people there,” Johnson said.

Carlos Beltran cracked a leadoff double. Storen retired the next two batters he faced, sending the record crowd into a frenzy when he struck out cleanup hitter Allen Craig with a slider. He moved to two strikes on the next two batters, Yadier Molina and David Freese, before he walked them both to load the bases.  “I made good pitches,” Storen said. “I wouldn’t change a thing. I have no regrets.”  He still needed just one pitch — one line drive at someone, one routine grounder, one lazy flyball. Descalso smoldered a one-hopper up the middle. Shortstop Ian Desmond dove, but the ball deflected off his glove and rolled into shallow center field.  “He hit it good,” Desmond said. “I did the best I could to get my glove on it.”  As the ball trickled into the outfield, pinch-runner Adron Chambers scored the tying run. Kozma, that pest, followed with a two-run single into right field. Freese crossed with the winning run.

“It’s hard to believe, man,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “You have games like these throughout the course of the year where stuff happens. And you shake it off. You get beat in the ninth inning and you shake it off, because you know you have to come back tomorrow and play. You get accustomed to forgetting about it. Unfortunately here, there’s no tomorrow.”  The Nationals’ top of the order produced only three outs against Cardinals closer Jason Motte in the bottom of the ninth. Ryan Zimmerman, the franchise third baseman who slogged through all six of the Nationals’ losing seasons, lofted the final out to shallow right field.

As the Cardinals rushed the field, the record crowd started with polite applause. The clapping turned into a “Let’s Go Nats!” chant. They wanted to show their appreciation, but they could not hide their sorrow. Fans filed out, and groundskeepers in navy sweatshirts raked dirt. The park had been a party after three innings. Now it was a morgue, a burial ground for the team made Washington embrace baseball again.  “It’s the transition from being a team that was capable of losing a game to a team that was capable of winning a game,” right fielder Jayson Werth said before the game. “It’s the transformation of a team into a winner. This team is a winning team. It’s a good club. We’re tough. We’re tough.”

Inside an otherwise silent clubhouse, reporters murmured questions and hands clapped from goodbye hugs and handshakes. Storen sat in a chair facing his locker, elbows on his knees, his chin in his hand. Teammates rubbed his shoulder or patted him on the back. Most of them said nothing. “I don’t know what to tell that guy,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “We’re both feeling the same thing. We’re both disappointed, upset. You can’t really sugarcoat anything right now.”  The Nationals were tough enough to force Game 5. They could not win it, not even after taking a 6-0 lead after the third inning, with their ace, Gio Gonzalez, standing on the mound. The Cardinals had won five consecutive elimination playoff games going back to last year. None came quite like this one.
The Nationals had scored nine runs all series, and Friday night, against Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, they scored six in the first three innings. Four days shy of his 20th birthday, Bryce Harper went 2 for 4 with a triple and a home run, making him only the second teenager to homer in the postseason. Zimmerman clobbered a two-run homer in the first. Michael Morse deposited Wainwright’s 53rd and final pitch in the visitors’ bullpen.

The Cardinals scored three runs while drawing four walks in the fourth and fifth innings off Gonzalez, who retired Molina to end the fifth with the bases loaded on his 99th and final pitch. Once Gonzalez exited early, he left Johnson with a vexing math equation: How to get 12 outs from his bullpen without allowing the Cardinals’ fearsome lineup three runs?  In the seventh, Johnson chose Game 3 starter Edwin Jackson over, among other choices, usual setup man Ryan Mattheus. Prior to the game, Johnson said he planned to use Jackson only if the game lurched into extra innings. But now he turned the right-hander who won the 2011 World Series with St. Louis, who entered with a career 5.70 ERA as a reliever.  “I just felt like Jackson was the best choice,” Johnson said. “I had to get through that part of the lineup.”

His first inning is usually Jackson’s worst, and he put Nationals fans through an emotional vice. He walked leadoff man Jon Jay and yielded a double to Carlos Beltran. The tying run came to the plate in the hulking person of Matt Holliday. Jackson survived with an RBI groundout.  With two outs he walked Molina on four pitches to bring Freese, last October’s hero, to the plate as the go-ahead run. Jackson abandoned his fastball and struck out Freese swinging at a vicious, 88-mph slider to leave two men on base.  Six outs to go. Johnson had his reliable one-two combo, Tyler Clippard and Storen, set for the eighth and ninth. The comfort of that disappeared when Descalso cranked a fastball from Clippard into the home bullpen beyond the right field fence, shrinking the Nationals’ lead to 6-5.  After all the fireworks in the early innings, what appeared to be the Nationals’ most crucial run came late, in a grind-it-out rally against Cardinals closer Jason Motte. Suzuki, added in an August trade, ripped a single up the middle with two outs and runners on the corners, bringing in LaRoche with an enormous insurance run.

Three outs to go. In came Storen, the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft. The park came unglued after the second out, roaring for the pitch that would clinch the Nationals’ trip to the National League Championship Series. It never came. They are all still waiting, waiting for the long winter ahead, and for the hope the Florida sun will help erase Washington’s newest, worst baseball memory.  “This game has taught us all a lot,” Zimmerman said. “And one of the things it’s taught us is to never take anything for granted.”

Nationals’ Brutal Game 5 Loss Still Stings — And Invites Second-Guessing

(By Adam Kilgore, Washington Post, 13 October 2012)

On the night of April 4, they gathered at Joe’s Stone Crab on East Grand Avenue in Chicago. The Washington Nationals had come north from Viera, Fla., and the next day they would begin their six-month odyssey together at Wrigley Field. For the first time, they huddled as one. The faces would change, the players would come and go. That was how it began.  The end came Friday, on a cold and unfathomably cruel night. The Nationals’ 9-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, in which a six-run lead dissolved over two excruciating hours, cut short their magical season. Saturday, the Nationals began to look ahead to the offseason with the specter of Game 5 still hovering over them.

In the postgame clubhouse Friday night, players hugged and clasped hands. Some of them wondered whether they would come back next season. Others had ensuing appointments for offseason surgery. Stephen Strasburg could move beyond the unprecedented decision that shaped his season. None of them could shake the immediate sting, but neither could they ignore the 100 games they won or the NL East title they captured.  “We’ve come a long ways,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I think that’s why it hurts even more, because of what we’ve all been through. We should be proud of what we did this year. We were the first team in this organization to be to this level.”

The brutal finish to a magical season will invite second-guesses, starting with decisions Manager Davey Johnson made in Game 5. Johnson’s actions all season stemmed from showing confidence in using players in their established roles. In Game 5, as he tried to cobble together the final 12 outs, Johnson veered away from his usual tack.  All year, Johnson had used Ryan Mattheus in the seventh inning against right-handed lineups. He had Game 3 starter Edwin Jackson available, in the same role Jordan Zimmermann filled brilliantly in their Game 4 victory. But Johnson made clear before Friday’s game that Zimmermann had pitched the day before because the Nationals’ bullpen was worn from a Game 3 beatdown. He said Jackson would pitch only if the game lurched into extra innings.  “My bullpen was kind of overused on the day before,” Johnson said before Game 5, explaining his decision to use Zimmermann. “I really needed somebody for that seventh inning.”  But in the seventh inning Friday, Johnson chose Jackson over Mattheus, and Jackson allowed one of the runs that enabled the Cardinals to chip away at the lead.  “I just felt like Jackson was the best choice I had to get through that part of that lineup,” Johnson said late Friday night. “He did the job for me. He gave up a run, but he did what we needed to to get to the people we needed to get to.”

In the ninth inning, Johnson used closer Drew Storen on a third consecutive day, which could have been avoided earlier in the series. In a Game 3 blowout, Storen pitched the ninth and threw 11 pitches in an 8-0 loss.  Storen had pitched on three straight days once all season, on Sept. 10, 11 and 12. But on Sept. 11 and 12 he threw five total pitches, recording just one out in both games. By using him in Game 3, Johnson enhanced the odds that he would trust Storen, who underwent elbow surgery in April, with a larger workload in three consecutive games than he carried all year.

Johnson made another difficult choice at a decisive moment. After Daniel Descalso ripped his game-tying, two-run single in the ninth, runners stood on the corners with two outs. Pete Kozma, a menace all series, stood at the plate. Descalso stole second to vacate first base.  On deck was the closer, Jason Motte, whom the Cardinals wanted to leave in the game for the ninth. If the Nationals had simply intentionally walked Kozma, the Cardinals would have been forced to either pinch-hit for Motte or let a reliever hit with the bases loaded and the score tied in the ninth.  The Cardinals, of course, would have chosen a pinch hitter. They had only one position player left on their bench: Tony Cruz, the backup catcher, a 26-year-old with a .257 batting average and one home run in 191 career at-bats.

Even if Cruz had improbably burned Storen with a go-ahead, bases-loaded hit, the Cardinals would have moved to the bottom of the ninth with a reliever other than their closer. They had rookie Shelby Miller, left-hander Marc Rzepczynski and Lance Lynn available in the bullpen. Rzepczynski and Lynn had given up game-winning hits in the series, and Miller, 22, had replaced injured starter Jaime Garcia on the roster.  The downside in walking Kozma would be putting Storen in position to push the go-ahead run across with a walk. Storen had walked two batters in row — throwing five two-strike pitches that could have ended the game — and Johnson may have worried about his control.  Johnson let Storen face Kozma, who flared a two-run single into right field. After shock fell over the park, Storen whiffed Motte on four pitches, and then Motte recorded a 1-2-3 inning to seal the game.  Johnson was not made available for comment Saturday and declined to respond to a message.

The wrenching finish could have been avoided with a better start, too. The Nationals gave Gio Gonzalez a six-run lead after three innings, and over the next two innings Gonzalez allowed four walks, leading to three runs. With Strasburg sidelined, Gonzalez became the Nationals’ de facto ace. In Game 5, given a huge lead, he could not put the hammer down.  The result — as well as the 5.25 ERA by Nationals starters in the NLDS — has led some to grumbling again about General Manager Mike Rizzo’s decision to shut down Strasburg. Rizzo knew the criticism would come and stood by the choice in the losing clubhouse Friday night.  “I’m not going to think about it, no,” Rizzo said. “We had a plan in mind. It was something we had from the beginning. I stand by my decision. We’ll take the criticism as it comes. We have to do what’s best for the Washington Nationals, and we think we did.”

Inside the clubhouse, at least on the record in the aftermath of their brutal Game 5 loss, players revealed no angst about the Nationals’ keeping Strasburg in the dugout for the final three weeks of the regular season and the playoffs.  “Stephen did great for us,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “And everyone knew what the situation was. And there’s not a guy in this clubhouse that thought any differently of, ‘Oh, what if this? What if that?’ That was not in our control. And we’re not worried about it. Not a guy in this clubhouse was worried about it. I know I wasn’t.”  Said first baseman Adam LaRoche: “We were fine with it. In a sense, we appreciated that Rizzo stuck to his guns — he said he was going to shut him down and did it.  “Of course we’d love to have him. Who wouldn’t? There’s not a team in baseball that wouldn’t want him in the postseason rotation. But they’re looking out for him. We had the horses to do it. We had the guys to do it without Stras. It’s just one of those things.”

No comments:

Post a Comment