Observations from and analysis of the Nats’ NLDS Game 2 win over the Cubs
NLDS Game 2: Nationals beat the Cubs 6-3 at Nationals Park to even the series at one on Saturday evening (Oct. 7, 2017)
1. This game will be remembered for many things, but it starts with Bryce Harper’s game-tying one-out two-run homer to right field off Carl Edwards Jr. in a five-run eighth. The Nats’ offense had been impotent over the first 16 innings of the series. The Nats had a win probability of 17.5 percent per Fangraphs when Harper came to the plate. The Nats were staring at falling down 2-0 in a best-of-five and dropping to 2-8 in 10 all-time playoff games at Nationals Park. And with a swing on a 3-1 pitch, everything changed. Harper’s bomb was a no-doubter, registering a projected distance of 421 feet and an exit velocity of 109 miler-per-four per Statcast.
2. The stone-cold look on Harper’s face as he rounded the bases and made his way into the Nats’ dugout after the homer was classic, as were hit bat flip and hair flip. Harper is a clutch mofo. He now has five career postseason home runs; no other current Nat has more than three (Ryan Zimmerman). Harper’s showmanship and ability to come through in the clutch are part of what makes him a superstar. Major League Baseball needs more of people like him. I have never understood and always hated the anti-Harper sentiment outside of D.C: “He wears too much eye black…he’s too cocky…he doesn’t respect the game.” Whatever. The Cole Hamels and Hunter Stricklands who have had problems with Harper over the years look like buffoons. The guy is a stud and great for the game.
3. Harper’s homer has a chance to be the biggest in Nats history. For now, that title belongs to the Werthquake – Jayson Werth’s walk-off solo homer off St. Louis’ Lance Lynn in 2012 NLDS Game 4 to force a Game 5. But the Nats lost that Game 5 (in horrific fashion). If the Nats go on to win this series – and do so in large part due to an offense that has awakened – Harper’s homer will overtake the Werthquake.
4. Of course, there was a lot more to what was a five-run eighth than just Harper’s homer:
- The actual game-winning homer was blasted by Ryan Zimmerman, who smashed a one-out three-run homer on an 0-1 pitch from Mike Montgomery for a 6-3 lead. That one swing raised the Nats’ win probability from 67.3 to 97 per Fangraphs. Zimmerman’s homer was not nearly the no-doubter that Harper’s was, as Zimmerman pretty clearly thought that he was flying out to left field. But in a game in which the game-time temperature was 82 degrees and there was moderate wind, the ball just kept carrying. Zimmerman at first almost seemed to not know how to react to the homer, but then he and the Nats were all kinds of fired up. It really was a tremendous scene, the kind of fun scene we haven’t gotten nearly enough of in D.C. sports.
- The Nats’ five-run eighth started with an Adam Lind pinch leadoff single on an 0-2 pitch off Carl Edwards Jr. I can’t say enough about how good of a signing the Lind signing was by Mike Rizzo. I loved the acquisition at the time and love it even more now. The Nats signed Lind in February to a one-year, $5 million deal with a $5 million mutual option for 2018. He was very productive during the regular season, posting a 123 OPS+ over 301 plate appearances. And he was particularly effective as a pinch hitter, posting a 1.040 OPS over 48 plate appearances. And Lind did quite a bit of damage on 0-2 pitches, slugging .406 over 33 plate appearances.
- Anthony Rendon followed Harper’s game-tying two run homer with a gritty eight-pitch walk off falling behind in the count 0-2. He was the final batter faced by Carl Edwards Jr.
- Daniel Murphy followed the Rendon walk by lacing a single off Montgomery, setting the stage for Zimmerman’s go-ahead three-run shot.
Washington Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman pumps his fist in the air after hitting a three-run home run off Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Mike Montgomery (38) during the eighth inning in Game 2 of baseball’s National League Division Series, at Nationals Park, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
5. As epic as the Nats’ five-run eighth was, their offense remains in an at-best questionable place.
- Trea Turner went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in Game 2 and is 0-for-8 with four strikeouts in the series. Few moments have been worse than Turner striking out swinging with the bases loaded against Jon Lester to end the bottom of the fifth in Game 2. I’m a big fan of The Burner, but he has looked overmatched and without confidence. Turner was a beast in the Nats’ four-game split with the Cubs in late June, going 6-for-14 with four walks and 7-for-8 on stolen bases before suffering a non-displaced fracture in his right wrist on a hit-by-pitch by Pedro Strop in the bottom of the seventh in Game 4. Turner has got to be a factor in order for the Nats to win this series.
- Jayson Werth went 0-for-4 in Game 2 and is 0-for-7 with a walk in the series. Dusty Baker needs to be seriously considering starting Howie Kendrick over Werth in Game 3 if that’s not the case already.
- Matt Wieters is 0-for-5 with two strikeouts and two hit-by-pitches in the series. This is not a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. There were 33 catchers in the majors during the regular season who each had at least 300 plate appearances. Wieters was dead last among them with a 62 wRC+.
6. I said on Chin Music with Al Galdi on Saturday morning that Game 2 was the biggest start of Gio Gonzalez’s career – were we going to see the mentally-fragile, walk-the-ballpark Gio, or the Gio who was second among pitchers in the National League in bWAR during the regular season? Well, the answer is that we saw a mixture of both. He only lasted for five innings, but that was because of the Nats’ struggling offense; Dusty Baker pinch-hit for Gio with Howie Kendrick with runners on first and third and two outs in the bottom of the fifth with the Nats trailing 3-1. But Gio did allow three runs over his five innings, giving up a leadoff homer to Wilson Contreras on an 0-1 pitch in the top of the second and a two-run homer to Anthony Rizzo following a leadoff double by Kris Bryant on a 1-2 pitch in the top of the fourth. Gio had six strikeouts versus two walks on 83 pitches. I can’t kill him, but I’m not holding a parade for him, either.
7. Dusty Baker #strategery evaluation:
- One of the biggest mantras in sabermetrics regarding postseason managing is “use your weapons.” Well, Dusty absolutely did that in this game when it came to his bench. We saw Howie Kendrick pinch-hit for Gio Gonzalez in the bottom of the fifth with runners on first and third and two outs with the Nats trailing 3-1; Kendrick drew a four-pitch pinch walk that loaded the bases. We saw Adam Lind pinch-hit for Oliver Perez to begin the bottom of the eighth; Lind worked a single on a 0-2 pitch that ignited an unforgettable five-run eighth. We saw Victor Robles pinch-run for Lind immediately following that single; Robles scored on Bryce Harper’s epic game-tying two-run homer.
- While I did not love every decision, Dusty’s bullpen maneuvering in Game 2 worked out beautifully: Matt Albers, Sammy Solis, Ryan Madson, Oliver Perez and Sean Doolittle combined for four scoreless innings. The lefty Solis did not have a good season and yet was brought in to face switch-hitter Ian Happ, who had a .789 OPS against lefty pitchers during the regular season, with Ben Zobrist on first and one out in the top of the seventh; the result, though, was a strikeout on five pitches. Perez, another lefty who did not have a good season, was brought in to face lefty Anthony Rizzo, who was about as good against lefties as he was against righties during the regular season, with Kris Bryant on first and one out in the top of the eighth; the result, though, was a groundball double play. Dusty did not stick to the Galdi mantra of “Core Four And Nothing More,” but the results were good. It’s a good thing.
- Dusty had Matt Wieters in the no. 7 spot and Michael A. Taylor in the no. 8 spot for a second straight game. That remains a mistake as I explained after Game 1.