October 13, 2012 [LINK / comment]

Déjà vu:   The Cardinals do it again

"From the thrill of victory ... to the agony of defeat ... " Never did those words from "ABC's Wide World of Sports" have as much meaning for me as they did last night. After a dramatic walk-off win in NLDS Game 4 on Thursday afternoon,* and a blazing-hot beginning in Game 5 last night, the Washington Nationals had the misfortune to experience the very same ghastly twist of fate that was suffered by the Texas Rangers in World Series Game 6 last year. Twice -- yes, twice -- the Nationals were within one strike of winning the National League Divisional Series and advancing to the NL Championship Series. Fans in jam-packed Nationals Park were grinning in gleeful anticipation, barely able to breathe in the chilly autumn air. And just like last year, the Cardinals spoiled the party by tying the game and then taking the lead. The difference is that this year those two events happened in the ninth inning, rather than the ninth and the eleventh inning. All of a sudden, a triumphant win turned into a disgraceful loss. It left hundreds of thousands of Nationals fans in D.C. and across this region shell-shocked, or "Dazed and Confused."

* I should have called attention to the spectacular catch by shortstop Ian Desmond of a short fly ball near the left field line in NLDS Game 4. That saved a run and probably helped tip the game in the Nats' favor. For a full Game 4 wrap-up, see the Washington Post.

So, let's retrace the steps of the historic Game 5 and try to draw some meaning from it. In the bottom of the first inning, Jayson Werth hit a leadoff double down the left field line, Bryce Harper hit a triple to center field, and Ryan Zimmerman hit a home run into the seats to the right of center field. Just like that, it was 3-0 with nobody out. The psychological momentum from Jayson Werth's home run the day before was in full force, and the record crowd of 45,966 fans roared their collective euphoric approval. Two innings later, more fireworks: Bryce Harper smashed a home run to right-center field, Ryan Zimmerman doubled past the center fielder, Adam LaRoche struck out, and then Michael "Beast" Morse homered to left-center field. That forced the Cardinals' starting pitcher Adam Wainwright out of the game, charged with six earned runs.

But after that, the Nationals evidently got complacent, and only managed one single and one walk over the next four innings. Meanwhile, their starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez started to lose command and control. In the fourth inning, Matt Holliday doubled in Carlos Beltran, who had walked. In the fifth inning, the Cardinals got a single, a double, and three walks, scoring two runs, one of which came on a wild pitch by Gio. He barely made it out of the inning to qualify for a possible win, with a 6-3 lead. In the seventh inning, Edwin Jackson (a former Cardinal) gave up a double and two walks for another run, making it 6-4. In the eighth inning, Tyler Clippard gave up a home run to David Descalso, making it 6-5. That's when the crowd started to get real nervous, and the noise level dropped noticeably. In the bottom of the inning, the Nats came back with three singles to get a valuable insurance run, with Kurt Suzuki getting the clutch RBI. That was huge. OK, a two-run lead ought to be enough to win the game -- right?

Actually, no. Closing pitcher Drew Storen took the mound in the ninth, and he performed pretty well at first, getting two of the first three batters out. He had a full count going on the next two batters, but he just couldn't get the job done in either case. Five times he threw pitches that would have ended the game had they been strikes, and each time it was a ball. All of a sudden the bases were loaded, and you know what happened after that. Here is the complete play-by-play sequence for the Cardinals in the ninth inning:

  1. Carlos Beltran doubled to center.
  2. Matt Holliday grounded out to third.
  3. Allen Craig struck out.
  4. Yadier Molina walked on a 3-2 count. (B F B F B B)
  5. David Freese walked on a 3-2 count. (F B F B B B)
  6. Daniel Descalso singled, deflected by shortstop; two runs scored.
  7. Pete Kozma singled to right field; two runs scored.
  8. Jason Motte struck out.

(The underlined Bs (for balls) for Molina and Freese were potential game-ending strikes.)

That incomprehensible turn of events totally deflated the spirits of fans and players alike. In the bottom of the ninth, Jayson Werth was out on a fly ball to right field, Bryce Harper struck out on a pitch that was as high as his head (youthful lack of discipline), and Ryan Zimmerman popped out to second base. And thus ended the Washington Nationals' hitherto joyous 2012 season on a very depressing note. Final score: Cards 9, Nats 7. frown The game summary, box score, etc. are at MLB.com.

From the perspective of a "neutral" sports fan, it was a truly awesome game to watch. Both teams got 11 hits, and neither committed an error. The Cardinals demonstrated once again that a team is more than the sum of its parts. No Albert Pujols, no Tony LaRussa, no matter. They had proven last year their ability to come back against overwhelming odds, and I never discounted that possibility, even when the Nats had a six-run lead early in the game. I'm sorry to say, but the Nationals have demonstrated their ability to squander big leads, as when they lost to the Braves 11-10 in 11 innings on July 20, blowing a 9-0 lead.

For the NL Divisional Series as a whole, several Nationals really did come through. Ryan Zimmerman led the team in batting average (.386) and tied with Adam La Roche in home runs (2). Ian Desmond was the hottest Nationals batter for the first four games, and then went 0-4 last night. Bryce Harper was the exact opposite, going 1 for 18 in the first four games and then getting two huge hits last night. Kurt Suzuki had a modest batting average (.235) but got clutch RBIs in Game 1 and in Game 5, when he hit 3 for 4. Pitching? Let's not go there. Aside from Ross Detwiler and the relief pitchers in Game 4, there's really not much to boast about. Given the expectations from early in the 2012 season, that's a big disappointment.

For the Cardinals, Carlos Beltran (.444) and David Freese (.421) led the way in batting average. They and Daniel Descalso (.316) were the offensive powerhouses, but Pete Kozma, who was almost cut from the roster last summer, got some clutch hits as well, most notably the go-ahead RBIs in the ninth inning last night. The 2011 World Champions from St. Louis are very clearly a worthy competitor this year as well, and they fully deserve to go on in the playoffs and vie for a chance to defend their title later this month. I salute them for their amazing accomplishments.

On the bright side, the Nationals are the only team to have won 100 games this year, including the two NLDS wins. The Yankees now have 98 total wins, the Giants have 97, the Cardinals have 92, while the Tigers have 91; those numbers all include 3 divisional series wins, and in the Cardinals' case, the extra wild card game win. Only the Yankees and Giants can exceed the Nationals in that regard.

My reflections on Facebook

In no particular order, here are some of my initial observations on Facebook:

Bob Timmermann of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) determined that this game was the biggest-ever comeback in a postseason series-deciding game in baseball history. My response:

When I boasted that we were watching history being made earlier this evening, when the score was 6-0, little did I realize how true -- and how ironic -- my words would be. :-( According to SABR member Bob Timmermann, the biggest blown lead in a decisive, winner-take-all postseason game was 4 -- by the 1925 Nationals and the 2003 Red Sox. Tonight, the Nationals were up 6-0 over the Cardinals before falling 9-7. What a stunning comeback by St. Louis.

Was Mike Rizzo's decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg a strategic blunder? Roger Parmelee thinks so. I wrote:

We'll have plenty of time to second-guess that one. The ultimate answer will come in future years, measured by how many times the Nationals get into the playoffs.

David Finkel thinks the same thing. I wrote:

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. I don't know if Strasburg would have made a difference in tonight's game. Gio Gonzalez got wobbly toward the end, but it was mostly the bullpen's fault. Poor Drew Storen. I wouldn't trade places with him for anything.

To MASN Nationals:

For years and years to come, we will remember all of those spectacular game-winning performances, hoping that next time we'll get more of them when we really need it. Go Nats in 2013!

Tigers beat the A's

Whereas the Reds-Giants series was distinguished by all five games being won by the visiting team, the Tigers-A's series was entirely won by the home team, until Game 5, which the Tigers won easily, 6-0, as Justin Verlander pitched a complete game shutout.

Yankees beat the O's

C.C. Sabathia also pitched a complete game, in the Yankees' deciding victory against the Orioles, but it wasn't a shutout, just a 3-1 margin. That game was marred by an apparent umpire mistake in ruling a fly ball hit by Oriole Nate McClouth a foul ball. The slow-motion zoomed-in video seem to indicate the ball changed direction as it nicked the right field foul pole, but apparently it wasn't conclusive enough to change the ruling on the field. So the Orioles remained behind 1-0, possibly influencing the rest of the game.

[UPDATE: The other big news from that game was the decision by Yankee manager Joe Girardi to bench the underachieving Alex Rodriguez, replacing him at third base third base with Eric Chavez. A-Rod will be back in the lineup for this evening's ALCS Game 1, which will start in less than an hour. But Girardi left open the possibility that Chavez could re-appear later in the ALCS. See MLB.com. Will A-Rod get motivated to do better? Who knows? For a multi-millionaire celebrity like him, winning baseball games may not be the most important thing in his life.]

Summing up

This year is the first time since the advent of the three division plus wild card system in 1994 (in effect, 1995) that all four divisional series went the full five games. Since TBS broadcast all those games, that will have a positive effect on their profitability this year.

So, it's the Cardinals at the Giants, and Tigers at Yankees for the next two-three days as the American and National League Championship Series begin. It's the first time since 1996 (Braves, Cardinals, Yankees, Orioles) that all four teams in the league championship series are traditional, pre-expansion era franchises, and the first time since 1990 (Pirates, Reds, Red Sox, Athletics) that all four teams have used their traditional, pre-relocation team names.

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I have a gotten little sidetracked from my main focus on baseball stadium history and design, swept up in the enthusiasm for the Nationals this year. "NATITUDE!" Can you blame me? After all, if baseball isn't all about having fun, then what's the point? It was a huge pleasure as the Nats finally realized their latent potential for greatness and made a serious bid to become world champions. In due course, we'll get over the awful kick in the gut that came at the end of last night's game. I look forward to another run at the postseason by the Nationals next year, and in the years to come after that.