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The Nats look to exorcise the demons of the 2012 NLDS

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Today, October 12, is the day the Washington Nationals can advance past the NLDS for the first time in their history when they play the Cubs at Nats Park.

Today, October 12, is also the anniversary of their losing Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS to the St. Louis Cardinals at Nats Park. A loss that not only eliminated them but which also made the record books as the Nats blew the biggest lead in an elimination game in postseason history.

Gio Gonzalez started Game 5 in 2012 and was staked to a 6-0 lead after three innings thanks to home runs from Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, and Michael Morse. He’d leave having given up three runs — not spectacular, but not terrible — and the Nationals would carry a two-run lead into the ninth, twice coming within one strike of advancing. It was not to be, however, as Drew Storen melted down, the Cardinals scored four runs, the plastic which had been hung for the champagne celebration in the Nats’ clubhouse was hastily removed and the Cardinals boarded a charter for San Francisco for the NLCS.

Dusty Baker has yet to announce who his starter is today, but Gonzalez may get the call once again. He’ll no doubt say that he’s not thinking of that game in 2012, but how could one not? How can any of the fans at that ballpark who remember that game not, especially if the Nats jump out to an early lead?

But thinking about a thing is not the same thing as worrying about it, and objective-minded Nats fans should worry less now about holding a lead than they have at any time in their franchise’s history. Stephen Strasburg’s gem yesterday not only gave the team new life, but it helped keep the bullpen rested. Ryan Madson threw 27 pitches and Sean Doolittle 12, but each are certainly available tonight. So too is Brandon Kintzler. So too is Tanner Roark if Gonzalez gets the start and vice-versa. The Nats will also have Max Scherzer, who was prepared to throw an inning of relief if necessary yesterday, ready to do the same today. With no regard for going long in this game and the possibility of no tomorrow, Scherzer will be a terrifying presence for Cubs hitters if pressed into action.

If there is anything for the Nats to worry about today it’s the bats. Yesterday’s win was great, but the offense was still basically moribund. As a club, Washington is hitting .130 in this series. Bryce Harper is 2-for-15. Daniel Murphy is 2-for-16. Anthony Rendon is 2-for-14. Ryan Zimmerman is 3-for-16. At least one of those guys has to have a better game tonight or else Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, who tossed seven shutout innings in Game 1, is going to have an easy time of it.

Most Nats fans won’t have an easy time of it, though. No matter how big of a lead the Nats have and no matter how late they hold it. They’ve been here before. Five years ago today, in fact, and they will not be calm until the final out is recorded. They learned the hard way that the game isn’t over until it’s truly over.

In the playoffs, the Yankees’ weakness has become their strength

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Two weeks ago, when the playoffs began, the idea of “bullpenning” once again surfaced, this time with the Yankees as a focus. Because their starting pitching was believed to be a weakness — they had no obvious ace like a Dallas Keuchel or Corey Kluber — and their bullpen was a major strength, the idea of chaining relievers together starting from the first inning gained traction. The likes of Luis Severino, who struggled mightily in the AL Wild Card game, or Masahiro Tanaka (4.79 regular season ERA) couldn’t be relied upon in the postseason, the thought went.

That idea is no longer necessary for the Yankees because the starting rotation has become the club’s greatest strength. Tanaka fired seven shutout innings to help push the Yankees ahead of the Astros in the ALCS, three games to two. They are now one win away from reaching the World Series for the first time since 2009.

It hasn’t just been Tanaka. Since Game 3 of the ALDS, Yankees pitchers have made eight starts spanning 46 1/3 innings. They have allowed 10 runs (nine earned) on 25 hits and 12 walks with 45 strikeouts. That’s a 1.75 ERA with an 8.74 K/9 and 2.33 BB/9. In five of those eight starts, the starter went at least six innings, which has helped preserve the freshness and longevity of the bullpen.

Here’s the full list of performances for Yankee starters this postseason:

Game Starter IP H R ER BB SO HR
AL WC Luis Severino 1/3 4 3 3 1 0 2
ALDS 1 Sonny Gray 3 1/3 3 3 3 4 2 1
ALDS 2 CC Sabathia 5 1/3 3 4 2 3 5 0
ALDS 3 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 7 0
ALDS 4 Luis Severino 7 4 3 3 1 9 2
ALDS 5 CC Sabathia 4 1/3 5 2 2 0 9 0
ALCS 1 Masahiro Tanaka 6 4 2 2 1 3 0
ALCS 2 Luis Severino 4 2 1 1 2 0 1
ALCS 3 CC Sabathia 6 3 0 0 4 5 0
ALCS 4 Sonny Gray 5 1 2 1 2 4 0
ALCS 5 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 8 0
TOTAL 55 1/3 35 20 17 20 52 6

In particular, if you hone in on the ALCS starts specifically, Yankee starters have pitched 28 innings, allowing five runs (four earned) on 13 hits and 10 walks with 20 strikeouts. That’s a 1.61 ERA.

While the Yankees’ biggest weakness has become a strength, the Astros’ biggest weakness — the bullpen — has become an even bigger weakness. This is why the Yankees, who won 10 fewer games than the Astros during the regular season, are one win away from reaching the World Series and the Astros are not.