Observations from and analysis of the Nats’ NLDS Game 5 loss to the Cubs
NLDS Game 5: Nationals lose to the Cubs 9-8 on Thursday night (Oct. 12, 2017)
1. Before the specifics of this loss, some big-picture thoughts. The Nats have authored six consecutive winning seasons. The Nats have won the National League East four times over those six seasons. The Nats have won at least 95 games in each of those four NL East-winning seasons. And yet the Nats are 0-4 in playoff series during this run. All of this talent, all of this money spent, and yet zero playoff-series victories. And it’s not just that. The Nats during this run are 0-3 in NLDS Game 5s, all of which have been at home. The Nats in fact are 3-8 in home playoff games during this run. That’s incredible. This team has had home-field advantage in all four of these divisional series and yet has lost eight of 11 games at Nationals Park.
2. There is no one thing that you can pin the Nats’ playoff struggles on. The pitching (starting and relieving) failed the Nats in their five-game NLDS loss to St. Louis in 2012. The offense failed the Nats in their four-game NLDS loss to San Francisco in 2014. The bullpen and Dusty Baker’s decisions failed the Nats in blowing a 2-1 series lead in their five-game NLDS loss to the Dodgers in 2016. And this five-game NLDS loss to the Cubs featured the offense costing the Nats Games 1 and 3 and Dusty’s decisions costing the Nats in Games 3 and 5. Every series has had its own flavor. But all have tasted terrible.
3. Dusty Baker now has lost a major-league-record 10 consecutive postseason close-out games. He now is 0-5 in one-run playoff games as Nats manager. There’s a reason for this. His #strategery in Game 5 left a lot to be desired. Here were the biggest tactical checkpoints, including both the good (not much) and the bad (plenty).
- Continuing to bat Matt Wieters in the no. 7 spot ahead of Michael A. Taylor in the no. 8 spot – Once again: Wieters was the worst-hitting regular catcher in the majors during the regular season (62 wRC+, good for 33rd out of 33 catchers each with at least 300 plate appearances). Batting him ahead of Taylor in every game in this series was a mistake, and doing so cost the Nats in real situations. Few moments were worse in Game 5 than Wieters’ first-pitch fly out to Jason Heyward in right field off Mike Montgomery with the bases loaded, two outs and the Nats trailing 8-6 in the bottom of the sixth. Taylor should have been batting. And Wieters should have been pinch-hit for. More on that in a bit.
- Continuing to start Jayson Werth in left field and bat him in the no. 2 spot – The struggling Werth had a double, a single and two walks in Game 5, so I give Dusty credit for sticking with Werth from that standpoint. But Werth, who is a defensive liability in left field, slid and totally missed on the catch of the ball on the Addison Russell two-out RBI double off Brandon Kintzler in the top of the sixth to give the Cubs an 8-4 lead.
- Starting Gio Gonzalez and then sticking with him for too long– I advocated for the Nats to go bullpenning in Game 5: start Tanner Roark, then go Max Scherzer, then go to the Core Four (Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle and Matt Albers). You’ll notice that I didn’t mention Gio, even though he was really good during the regular season (second among pitchers in the National League with a 6.6 bWAR). There were reasons that I didn’t want Gio: a) he had a 5.79 ERA over his previous seven starts (regular season and postseason) and b) he hasn’t exactly been Capt. Clutch or Mr. Nerves of Steel in his career. And so what happened? Gio was a mess in a one-run first for the Cubs, giving up a leadoff double to Jon Jay and two-out walks to Wilson Contreras and Addison Russell sandwiched around a single by Albert Almora Jr. Gio also threw the ball about 20 miles off the plate on a wild pitch to Kris Bryant that sent Jay to third in an undeniable example of Gio being nervous. I would have had no problem with Dusty pulling Gio in the top of the first. Gio did then toss a perfect second with two strikeouts. But he gave up two more runs in the top of the third on a leadoff double by Bryant on a 1-2 pitch, back-to-back one-out walks of Contreras and Almora, an RBI groundout by Russell and a run-scoring wild pitch while Jason Heyward was batting. Dusty should have pulled Gio after the Bryant double or Contreras walk. Gio lasted for just three innings, giving up three runs and quickly allowing a 4-1 third-inning lead to become 4-3. This was very reminiscent of Dusty sticking with Joe Ross for too long in the bottom of the third in the Nats’ 6-5 loss at the Dodgers in NLDS Game 4 in 2016.
- Sticking with Max Scherzer for too long – I had no problem with Dusty going to Scherzer after Matt Albers tossed a scoreless fourth. But as was the case with Gio, and as I have said many times, one of a manager’s biggest jobs in a postseason game is to pull pitchers before they struggle or as soon as they struggle. You don’t give a pitcher the chance to “work himself out of a jam.” The game is always on the line. You can’t afford to wait and see if a jam becomes a big inning. Scherzer, working on two days’ rest, simply didn’t have it in Game 5. He allowed four runs (two earned) in the top of the fifth after getting the first two batters out, giving up two singles, a two-run double, an intentional walk and a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch. Wieters failed Scherzer big time in this inning, as the catcher had a passed ball and then throwing error on Scherzer’s three-pitch swinging strikeout of Javier Baez, allowing him to get to second on what should have been the third out and allowing Addison Russell, who had the two-run double, to score. And, yes, the Nats did get jobbed in the umpires missing Baez’s bat hitting Wieters’ helmet and/or facemask on the swing, an occurrence that should have resulted in the play being dead and Baez being out on a strikeout for the third out. But there was plenty of bad after that missed call. Wieters committed catcher interference during the next plate appearance, putting Tommy La Stella on first. Bottom line, Dusty should have pulled Scherzer no later than after the Russell two-run double, which followed back-to-back singles by batters on which Scherzer had strikes: Wilson Contreras was down 0-2 and Ben Zobrist was down 1-2. I will grant you, though, that sticking with Scherzer wasn’t nearly as bad as sticking with Gio.
- Not pinch-hitting for Matt Wieters in the bottom of the sixth – The bases were loaded, there were two outs and the Nats were trailing 8-6. And yet Dusty let the worst-hitting regular catcher in the majors during the regular season, Wieters, bat. The result? A first-pitch fly out to Jason Heyward in right field off Mike Montgomery. Now, you might say that Wieters had delivered two singles earlier in the game. Whatever. Consider yourself lucky to have gotten those singles and get him out of there. The Nats were running out of outs. The Nats had three enticing pinch-hitting options in Adam Lind, Howie Kendrick and Brian Goodwin. Use your weapons. It’s not like you were taking out Pudge Rodriguez defensively, either; Wieters had a passed ball, a throwing error and catcher interference in the Cubs’ four-run fifth. But the best part about all of this was what happened in the top of the seventh: Dusty double-switched Wieters out of the game. If that was already in your mind, why in the world did you let Wieters bat in that spot? Yes, Lind grounded into a first-pitch double play with runners on first and second and no outs in pinch-hitting for Ryan Madson against Wade Davis in the bottom of the eighth, but that’s not the point. Lind was the better option for Wieters, and that’s not even a discussion. And in a one-run loss in a do-or-die playoff game at home, Dusty never used Kendrick or Goodwin.
- Going to Sammy Solis in the top of the seventh – Core Four and nothing more. I have been beating that drum for months. Dusty did not adhere to that in Game 3, and that cost the Nats the game. He clearly didn’t learn his lesson. Solis and his 5.88 ERA from this past regular season gave up back-to-back one-out singles. Dusty then replaced Solis with Ryan Madson, who gave up an RBI force out to Kris Bryant on another 0-2 pitch. That increased the Cubs’ lead to 9-6. Solis should have never been in the game.
4. So what now with Dusty Baker? He has served his two-year, reported $4 million contract and has yet to be extended despite having publicly lobbied for an extension multiple times. The word going into this series was that the Lerners did plan to retain him. But should they? I have said that Dusty has deserved an extension. I do still feel that way. Dusty is an excellent communicator (well, at least with his players; you can’t say that regarding the media after his butchery of the Stephen Strasburg Illness press conference after the rainout of Game 4). Dusty is a good manager; you don’t win have 10 90-win seasons over stints with four franchises, each of which you have taken to the playoffs, without being pretty good. But Dusty is not a great manager, and that has everything to do with his strategy and lack of embracing of sabermetrics. This is not a question of intellect; Dusty is a smart man. This is a question of philosophy. There are progressive and analytically-smart principles of handling pitchers and offenses that have been embraced throughout the majors. Not getting on board with them is stubborn, foolish and costly. You could argue now that Dusty has cost the Nats two playoff-series wins. Remember, there’s a reason that Dusty was without a managerial job for two years after Cincinnati fired him in Oct. 2013. You can do a lot worse than Dusty. But you can also do a lot better. I wouldn’t extend him for more than a year, and I wouldn’t give him more than a modest raise. And if he doesn’t like that, then see ya.
5. There is no overstating how nutty this game was. Heck, the darn thing lasted for four hours, 37 minutes. But consider the following regarding the four-batter sequence against Max Scherzer in the Cubs’ four-run fifth that saw an intentional walk of Jayson Heyward, Javier Baez reach first on a strikeout-passed ball and then advance to second on a throwing error by Matt Wieters, Tommy La Stella reach first base on catcher interference by Wieters and then Jon Jay get hit by a pitch with the bases loaded: not a single one of the 2.73 million half innings in Baseball Reference’s data base had even had all four of these events; only five games had all four.
6. The Nats’ mighty offense, which was mostly impotent in this series, finally busted out in Game 5. The Nats had 16 hits and 16 walks over the first four games of the series; the Nats had 14 hits and nine walks in just Game 5.
- Michael A. Taylor became the first player in major-league history with at least four RBI in each of two straight postseason games. He had a three-run homer on an 0-2 pitch off Kyle Hendricks in the Nats’ four-run second, a two-out RBI single off Wade Davis in the bottom of the eighth and a walk. No Nat improved more this season than Taylor. He was by far the Nats’ offensive MVP in this series: 5-for-15 with two homers, three walks and eight RBI. Taylor had eight of the Nats’ 18 RBI in the series. The Nats will have a very interesting outfield situation next season with Taylor, Bryce Harper, Adam Eaton, Victor Robles and even Brian Goodwin.
- Daniel Murphy in Game 5 had a first-pitch solo homer off Kyle Hendricks to lead-off the Nats’ four-run second, a two-out RBI double off Mike Montgomery in the Nats’ two-run sixth and two walks.
- Jayson Werth had a double, a single and two walks in Game 5 in what was almost certainly his final game as a Nat.
7. Baserunning cost the Nats big time in Game 5. Trea Turner got thrown out at home by second baseman Javier Baez on a Bryce Harper fielder’s choice for the second out in the bottom of the first. And Jose Lobaton inexplicably got picked off at first base by catcher Wilson Contreras for the final out in the bottom of the eighth with runners on first and second, Turner batting and the Nats trailing 9-8. Lobaton initially was ruled safe, but the call was overturned via replay. And while at first it appeared as if there wasn’t enough video evidence to overturn the call, TBS eventually showed a side-by-side two-angle replay on which you could tell that Lobaton was out. Remember also that Ryan Zimmerman inexplicably got picked off at first base by the yips-having Jon Lester for the second out in what eventually was a four-run Nats eighth in Game 4.
Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (44) picks off Washington Nationals’ Jose Lobaton on a throw from catcher Willson Contreras during the eighth inning in Game 5 of baseball’s National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs, at Nationals Park, early Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, in Washington. The Cubs challenged the call on the field and it was overturned on review. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
8. These Nats playoff failures are bad for baseball in D.C. Yes, I know that’s an obvious thing to say, but here’s what I mean. Game 5 on TBS got a 14.0 television rating in the D.C. market. That’s the second-best rating ever for a Nats game locally (the 2012 NLDS Game 5 loss to St. Louis is no. 1 at 16.7). But this Game 5 got a 22.9 rating in Chicago. For comparison’s sake, the Redskins’ have drawn the following ratings over the first four weeks of the 2017 regular season: 19.1, 20.5, 23.3, 23.2. So while the Nats have a terrific fan base, there still is a ways to go. How do you enlarge a fan base? By making deep playoff runs. That’s how the Redskins became such a big deal in this city. And that’s what it will take for Nats do-or-die playoff games to do better than two-thirds of what Redskins regular-season games do. Additionally, deep Nats playoff runs would go a long way toward reducing the still-sizable Orioles fan base in the DMV.