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For the second time in three seasons, the Nats had the best record in the National League.  But for the second time in three seasons, the Nats lost their National League Division Series.  Here’s what happened and why.

Game 1: 3-2 loss at Nationals Park on Oct. 3

Game 2: 2-1 18-inning loss at Nationals Park on Oct. 4

Game 3: 4-1 win at AT&T Park on Oct. 6

Game 4: 3-2 loss at AT&T Park on Oct. 7

1. The Nats’ offense, with the exception of two players, was awful

There was a lot to this series, but ultimately the biggest reason for the Nats loss was their atrocious batting.  The Nats had a .164 batting average, a .222 on-base percentage and a .258 slugging percentage in the series.

The Nats totaled 39 strikeouts and just 12 walks.

The Nats went just 2-for-23 with runners in scoring position.

Right fielder Jayson Werth went 1-for-17 and did not talk to reporters after Game 4.  I hated that.  Werth is a very good offensive player, is lauded for his leadership and is in the midst of a seven-year, $126 million contract.  Him not talking was bush league, especially considering that rookie reliever Aaron Barrett answered every question asked of him after his disastrous Game 4 performance.

First baseman Adam LaRoche went 1-for-18.

Center fielder Denard Span went 2-for-19.

Shortstop Ian Desmond went 3-for-18.

Catcher Wilson Ramos went 2-for-17.

2. The Nats’ bats made a mediocre Giants staff look great

Giants starters had a 1.40 ERA in the series off finishing the regular season just 10th in the National League with a 3.74 ERA.

Giants relievers in Game 2 combined for 12 strikeouts in 10 1/3 scoreless innings.  Yusmeiro Petit, a journeyman pitcher in his age-29 season, recorded seven strikeouts in six scoreless innings.

3. Why not more of Ryan Zimmerman?

Zimmerman did not start a single game in the series, during which he totaled just four plate appearances.  Maybe his right hamstring was still a major problem.  Maybe manager Matt Williams felt that Zimmerman couldn’t be trusted in the field.  Whatever the case, given the offensive struggles, couldn’t the Nats have used more than four plate appearances from a guy with a career OPS+ of 120?

4. The two Nats who delivered offensively were third baseman Anthony Rendon and left fielder Bryce Harper

Rendon and Harper went a combined 12-for-36. The rest of the Nats went a combined 14-for-123.

Rendon went 7-for-19 with a walk.

Harper went 5-for-17 with two walks, blasting solo homers in Games 1, 3 and 4.  He also had an RBI double in Game 4.  Harper had three homers and four RBI in the series, during which the rest of the Nats had just one homer and three RBI.

5. Harper also produced three great defensive plays

Harper was credited with an outfield assist in providing the initial throw in getting catcher Buster Posey out at home in the bottom of the ninth of Game 2 (Giants manager Bruce Bochy challenged the play, but the call was upheld).  And Harper made two terrific catches in Game 3: leaping catch against the wall while battling a bright, low sun in the bottom of the second and a running and then sliding-forward grab of a sinking liner in the bottom of the seventh.

6. An inning that will haunt Williams: the top of the ninth of Game 2

Williams pulled starter Jordan Zimmermann after he walked second baseman Joe Panik in a plate appearance that featured multiple close calls by home-plate umpire Vic Carapazza.  Closer Drew Storen then came in and allowed a single to Posey and then a game-tying double to third baseman Pablo Sandoval.

The removal of Zimmermann came despite him having allowed just three hits and a walk and having thrown just 100 pitches.  Zimmermann became the only pitcher ever pulled from a postseason game one out shy of a shutout.  He had retired 57 of the previous 62 batters he had faced dating back to Sept. 20 (that stretch included a no-hitter of Miami in the Nats’ final game of the regular season).

The decision to remove Zimmermann wasn’t the egregious crime that it’s been made out to be.  Storen had a great regular season, and asking him to get one out wasn’t asking for the impossible.  But the decision to put him into the game clearly didn’t work and justifably brought up memories of Game 5 of the Nats’ 2012 NLDS.

7. Another inning that will haunt Williams: the bottom of the seventh of Game 4

Williams allowed Matt Thornton to face Posey despite him having crushed left-handed pitching throughout his career.  Posey lined a single to center field.

Williams then inserted the rookie Barrett into the game with runners on first and second and one out.  Barrett was the only reliever warming up, even though a) he’s a rookie and b) he threw only 45 percent of his pitches this season in the strike zone.  Barrett walked right fielder Hunter Pence, then issued a run-scoring wild pitch and then, on the very next pitch while intentionally walking Sandoval, threw the ball over Ramos’ head.  The play, though, resulted in Ramos firing the ball back to Barrett and Posey being tagged out at home (it appeared as if Barrett blocked the plate, violating, ironically, the so-called Buster Posey rule; the play was reviewed and upheld because Barrett set up in front of home plate early enough).

Unlike the Zimmermann-Storen decision, there’s not a lot of statistical backup for how Williams handled this inning.  A better option than either Thornton or Barrett would have been Tyler Clippard, who held right-handed batters to a .130/.197/.226 slash line this season.  But Clippard never even warmed up in the inning.

Williams after Game 4 indicated that he used Thornton and Barrett because they were two of the Nats’ seventh-inning guys.  You can’t manage a bullpen in a postseason elimination game the way you manage a bullpen during the regular season (and Williams largely handled his bullpen quite well during the regular season).  Consider what Orioles manager Buck Showalter did in Game 1 of his team’s three-game ALDS sweep of Detroit: inserted reliever Andrew Miller into the game in the top of the sixth inning, the earliest usage of Miller this season by either the O’s or Boston.  The reason?  The Tigers’ big bats were coming up: first baseman Miguel Cabrera, DH Victor Martinez and left fielder J.D. Martinez.  The result?  Millers tossed 1 2/3 scoreless innings, recording three strikeouts.  The lesson: your best relievers should be used in high-leverage situations in postseasons, period.  Disregard what inning it is or what regular-season roles were.  A playoff game is always on the line.  Use your weapons.

8. The Nats’ pitching was good enough to win the series

Unlike in the 2012 NLDS, Nats starters and relievers, overall, were just fine.

Nats starters allowed two earned runs in 24 2/3 innings, registering a WHIP of 1.01.  Zimmermann allowed one run in 8 2/3 innings in Game 2.  Doug Fister tossed seven scoreless innings in Game 3.

Nats relievers allowed four earned runs in 19 1/3 innings.  Arguably the two biggest concerns for the bullpen entering the series, Rafael Soriano and Jerry Blevins, combined for 5 2/3 scoreless and walk-less innings.

9. That said, the major complaints regarding the Nats’ pitching in the series:  

a.    Storen had the blown save in Game 2 and allowed a run in the bottom of the ninth in Game 3.

b.    Barrett and Matt Thornton combined to allow a run on two hits, two walks and a wild pitch in the bottom of the seventh of Game 4.

c.    Gio Gonzalez lasted just four innings in Game 4.  He allowed two unearned runs in the bottom of the second on a single, a fielding error by Gonzalez, a bunt single on which neither Gonzalez nor Rendon fielded the ball, a bases-loaded walk to left-handed batting center fielder Gregor Blanco and an RBI groundout.

d.    Stephen Strasburg lasted just five innings in Game 1, giving up two runs (one earned) on eight hits, a walk and a hit-by-pitch.

10. An important clarification from Game 2

The notion that Zimmermann got jobbed by Carapazza in the plate appearance that resulted in Panik’s two-out walk in the bottom of the ninth is technically wrong.  The strike-zone plot from BrooksBaseball.net shows that all four of the balls that Zimmermann threw to Panik in the five-pitch plate appearance were in fact outside the strike zone.  Fangraphs chronicled that Carapazza had been calling some of those pitch locations strikes during the evening, so it is correct to say that Zimmermann got unfair treatment given the established strike zone of the game.  But a home-plate umpire isn’t supposed to establish his own zone.  Carapazza’s calls in the plate appearance were, according to the rulebook, the right ones.

Where Carapazza was wrong was in the bottom of the 10th, during which second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera and Williams were ejected by Carapazza after Cabrera struck out on three straight called strikes off three balls to begin the plate appearance.  The strike-zone plot from BrooksBaseball.net did indeed show that the final two called strikes were high and out of the strike zone.  So the anger was justified.  But that doesn’t excuse Cabrera or Williams for not better controlling their anger, and all they have to do is look at Harper.  He was mad about a called strike in the bottom of the ninth and let Carapazza know, but did so in a low-key manner and remained in the game.

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