Playoff Pinch Hits: Nationals One Loss Away From Another Playoff Disappoinment

By Sam McPherson

Sometimes, you have to wonder why Major League Baseball even bothers with a 162-game season if the results mean so little come October. The grind of a long season can come to an abrupt halt in one or three games now in October, thanks to the expansion of the playoffs to include two wild-card teams. Six months of trends and patterns go out the window.

This is why last year’s World Series was the first one since 1999 to feature each league’s best regular-season team. There are just too many variables now in the baseball postseason. Ask the American League’s Los Angeles Angels, as they finished with the top record in that league yet also lost the first two games at home in extra innings — and then the series — to a wild-card team.

Anyone who claims to know and understand October baseball is fibbing, for if they really knew the secrets, they’d be buying lottery tickets or going to Vegas.

Why the Long Season?

Few teams know the vagaries of postseason baseball better than the Washington Nationals.

Twice in three years, the Nats have finished with the best record in the National League only to struggle mightily in the five-game National League Division Series against teams that couldn’t even win their own divisions over 162 games — not much of a reward. Teams with the better regular-season records really do deserve more of an advantage than one game in the LDS matchups.

MLB makes its teams fight for 162 games only to let their October destiny be decided by a sequence of proverbial coin flips, which erase all distinct advantages a team has earned over the prior six months. And teams like the Nationals — and this year the Angels — suffer for it.

Losing the Close Ones

After losing an 18-inning Game Two battle at home to the wild-card entry San Francisco Giants, the Nats travel across the country Monday to play Game Three at AT&T Park in San Francisco — and they face the Giants’ best starter now, after having burned their top two in the first two games back home.

Washington lost Game One, 3-2, and Game Two, 2-1, and nothing hurts more in the postseason than losing those one-run games. Funny, too, as San Francisco was only 18-22 in one-run games this regular season, while the Nationals were 26-22 in such games.

Once again, a playoff truth rears its ugly head: If you can’t close games in October, you’re playing golf sooner than you want to be.

Washington on the Ropes

The Nationals send Doug Fister (16-6, 2.41) to the mound against Madison Bumgarner (18-10, 2.98). That gives Washington a fighting chance, but the Nats need to wake up at the plate. They let 39-year-old Tim Hudson hold them to one run in Game Two, despite Hudson’s terrible second-half numbers (2-7, 4.73). The Nationals were third in scoring this year among NL teams, but you wouldn’t know it so far in this series.

The other problem Washington must watch right now is Drew Storen. He was on the mound for the two biggest losses in Nationals postseason history so far: Game Five of the 2012 NLDS against the Cardinals and Game Two of this NLDS, And he blew the save both times. What was that about losing the close ones?

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Dodgers Head to St. Louis Tied

In the other NLDS matchup, it’s Game Three in St. Louis, where the Cardinals will be hosting the Los Angeles Dodgers. After beating up Clayton Kershaw on Friday night, St. Louis let one get away on Saturday evening. The Cards tied the game in the eighth inning only to see Matt Kemp deliver a game-winning home run in the bottom of the inning.

St. Louis would prefer to win both games at home and avoid a Game Five in Los Angeles with Kershaw waiting for them, surely ready to impose himself upon hapless Cardinals hitters. Postseason veteran John Lackey (3-3, 4.30 for St. Louis in 2014) takes the mound for the Cardinals against the Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu (14-7, 3.38), who has had some nagging injuries lately.

The Cardinals have won the NL pennant four times since 2004, and they’d like to add another one this year. The Dodgers, of course, haven’t won much since the 1988 World Series. L.A. has squandered its pitching edge and its home-field advantage, and St. Louis is not the team you want to do that against.

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Check out other Playoff Pinch Hits.

Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A’s. His work can be found on Examiner.com.

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