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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.

Rob Manfred offers little insight, shows contempt for reporters in press conference

Rob Manfred
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Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke at a press conference, addressing the Astros cheating scandal and other topics on Sunday evening. It did not go well.

To start, the press conference was not broadcast officially on MLB’s own TV channel (it aired the 1988 movie Bull Durham instead), nor could any mention to it or link to the live stream be found anywhere on MLB.com. When the actual questions began, Manfred’s answers were circuitous or simply illogical given other comments he has made in the past. On more than one occasion, he showed contempt for reporters for doing their jobs — and, some might argue, doing his job — holding players and front office personnel accountable.

Last month, Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal broke a story about the Astros’ “dark arts” and “Codebreaker” operation, based on a letter Manfred sent to then-GM Jeff Luhnow. Diamond was among the reporters present for Manfred’s press conference on Sunday. Per The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler, Manfred addressed Diamond, saying, “You know, congratulations. You got a private letter that, you know, I sent to a club official. Nice reporting on your part.” MLB’s response to the depth of the Astros’ cheating ways was lacking and, without Diamond’s reporting, we would have known how deeply lacking that response was. It is understandable that Manfred would be salty about it, since it exposed him as doing his job poorly, but it was an immature, unrestrained response from someone in charge of the entire league.

Onto the actual topic at hand, Manfred said he felt like the punishment doled out to the Astros was enough. Per Chris Cotillo, Manfred said Astros players “have been hurt by this” and will forever be questioned about their achievements in 2017 and ’18. Some players disagree. Former pitcher Phil Hughes even suggested the players have a work stoppage over this issue.

Manfred defended his decision not to vacate the Astros’ championship, saying, “The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act.” The commissioner devaluing the meaning of a championship seems… not great? Counterintuitive, even? The “piece of metal” is literally called the Commissioner’s Trophy. Manfred went on to brag about the league having “the intestinal fortitude to share the results of that investigation, even when those results were not very pretty.” Be careful, don’t hurt yourself patting yourself on the back for doing the bare minimum.

Manfred said there was no evidence found that the Astros used buzzers and added that, since the players were given immunity, he doesn’t think they would continue to hide that when asked about it. He said, “I think in my own mind. It was hard for me to figure out why they would tell us, given that they were immune, why they would be truthful and admit they did the wrong thing and 17, admit they did the wrong thing and 18, and then lie about what was going on in 19.”

The commissioner expects the league to implement “really serious restrictions” on access to in-game video feeds for the 2020 season.

There has been some recent back-and-forth between the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger and the Astros’ Carlos Correa. Manfred isn’t a fan of the sniping through the media. He said, “I’m sort of a civil discourse person. It must be because I’m old. But, yeah, I think that the back and forth that’s gone on is not healthy.” The reason Bellinger and others are speaking publicly about the issue, attempting to hold the Astros accountable, is because the league did not do a sufficient job doing that itself. Bellinger wouldn’t feel the need to speak up in defense of himself, his teammates, and other players affected by the cheating scheme if he felt like the league had his and his peers’ backs.

Because the players involved in the Astros’ cheating scheme weren’t punished, some — like Larry Bowa — have suggested intentionally throwing baseballs at Astros players to exact justice. Manfred met with managers who were in attendance today to inform them that retaliatory beanballs “will not be tolerated.” He added, “It’s dangerous and it is not helpful to the current situation.” Manfred has done nothing about beanball wars in the past, but it will now give the Astros somewhat of an advantage since pitchers will now be judged closely on any pitch that runs too far inside on Astro hitters.

Manfred also spoke about the ongoing feud with Minor League Baseball and basically reiterated what he and the rest of the league have disingenuously been saying since it was revealed MLB proposed cutting 42 minor league teams. Manfred’s talking point is that MLB is concerned about substandard facilities being used by minor league players, but not all of the 42 teams on the proposed chopping block have anything close to what could reasonably be considered substandard.

Lastly, Manfred was asked about the Orioles and tanking, and more or less danced around the issue by expressing confidence in the club’s ownership. The Orioles have won 47 and 54 games in the past two seasons. Payroll dropped by more than $50 million. The Orioles saw over 250,000 fewer fans in attendance in 2019 than in ’18. The O’s also saw a decline of over 460,000 fans in attendance from 2017 to ’18. But, yeah, it’s going well.

All in all, this press conference could not have gone worse for Manfred. The press found it condescending and the comments he made rang hollow to the players. Manfred seemed on edge and unprepared addressing arguably the biggest controversy baseball has faced since the steroid era. This is a dark time for the sport.