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A history lesson of MLB wild-card playoff games with Nats on cusp of postseason berth

A history lesson of MLB wild-card playoff games with Nats on cusp of postseason berth

Now that winning the NL East division is an impossibility, the Nationals have turned their attention towards making the 2019 MLB Postseason by way of the two NL Wild Card spots. This is entirely unfamiliar territory for the Nats and their fans.

The four times the Nats have qualified for the postseason, they won the NL East division. They have lost to wild card teams, but have never been one themselves.

MLB's wild card system wasn't installed until 1994. The current setup, with two wild card teams that face off in a winner-take-all game to qualify for the Division Series, wasn't enacted until 2012. So, the Nats are in a much better position than they would have been just eight years ago.

That said, beginning the postseason with a one-off game is not for the faint of heart. Anything can happen in one baseball game and especially when two teams put their seasons on the line.

From the seven years of the wild card game system, we have learned a few things. For one, those teams have a solid chance of going on deep postseason runs, even though they then have to meet a division-winner in the next round in a five-game series that begins on the road.

In the last four years, three teams won the wild card game and then advanced to the Championship Series. It has happened six total times in seven years. If the Nats got to the NLCS, it would be further than they have ever been before.

In 2014, the San Francisco Giants won the NL Wild Card game on the road, then went on to win the World Series. They, of course, beat the Nationals in the NLDS that year. Washingtonians remember that series well.

The Nats also lost to a wild card team in 2012. That year the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Braves in the wild card round, the Nats in the NLDS and went on to lose in seven games to the Giants in the NLCS.

The 2014 Giants were one of two teams to win a wild card game and then go to the World Series. It also happened with the Royals the same year, as they lost to San Francisco in the championship round.

Six total teams have won a World Series after entering the postseason as a wild card team. That includes the 2004 Boston Red Sox, who ended their famous title drought by sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals.

The MLB postseason has enough parity to where any team that qualifies has a real chance of winning it all. And the wild card game itself has all the makings for MLB postseason madness.

But interestingly enough, the games are often not very close. In fact, of the 14 total wild card games played between the AL and NL, only two have been decided by fewer than three runs. Half of them, seven total, have been decided by four runs or more.

The drama, especially early and late in games, can be exhilarating. All the anticipation, with the season on the line, and every pitch represents a scoring opportunity, especially in this era where home runs fly out of ballparks more often than ever before.

But oftentimes, the result of the game becomes clear by the middle innings. The tension is cut earlier than expected by the realization your team is probably moving on, or that your season is in all likelihood about to be over.

That adds some pressure to managers who try to squeeze every ounce they can out of their teams. If the Nats are to make it, expect a lot of pitching changes.

In the 14 wild card games, half of the participants have used at least six pitchers. For context, only 17 percent of teams in World Series Game 7s have used at least six pitchers.

Last year, Cubs manager Joe Maddon used nine pitchers in a 13-inning loss to the Rockies in the NL Wild Card round. The game last four hours and 55 minutes.

Yeah, the games are usually long, too. The average wild card game has been three hours and 34 minutes. That is about 30 minutes longer than the average regular-season game during the same time period.

It can be fun for the teams that win. But the wild card game is usually a certain degree of excruciating for both sides. All of the drama of an MLB postseason series is packed into one, nine-inning game.

It's all the emotion and stress of the MLB Postseason boiled down into a concentrate. 

Get ready, Nats fans. It could get weird.

Baseball Reference's play index was used for this research.

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Kurt Suzuki finds himself in surprising spot of headline maker

Kurt Suzuki finds himself in surprising spot of headline maker

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Kurt Suzuki will turn 37 years old while in a major-league uniform if the Nationals play October baseball again this season. This is year 14 and the second stop with one of four teams he’s played for. Suzuki spent time in the American League,
 then the National League, then back to the AL before a return to the NL. He’s well-traveled.

Which makes the headlines cooking with his name all the stranger to him. Following comments to The Washington Post that the Houston Astros were using a whistling system to steal signs in the 2019 World Series, Suzuki’s name was hurled to the front of the cross-player sniping currently pervasive in Major League Baseball. Houston’s Carlos Correa transitioned to specifically talk about Suzuki on Saturday when he rumbled through a session with Astros writers. Sunday, Suzuki conducted his own group session, something he was partly in disbelief about, and something he doesn’t want to keep occurring. 

“Honestly, I’m too old to get in the middle,” Suzuki said. “I really don’t associate myself with this kind of stuff. I just kind of go about my business and try to stay out of everything and get ready to play baseball. That’s what it’s about -- playing baseball.”

Suzuki’s steady answers Sunday inside the Nationals’ clubhouse focused on two ideas: he’s enjoying the World Series and preparing for 2020. Suzuki stopped short of saying “I’m just here so I don’t get fined,” but that was the general tenor after he politely agreed to talk with reporters despite being self-aware enough to realize the topic.

“I thought you guys were going to talk about the 1-for-20 in the World Series,” Suzuki joked.

He made the same joke with teammates before heading to meet the media. He was asked where that “one” landed.

“Train tracks.”

Suzuki joined Yan Gomes, pitching coach Paul Menhart, Davey Martinez and others in devising a multi-tiered system to protect signs against the Astros in the World Series. Suzuki did not say Sunday he knew the Astros were cheating in the World Series. 

“You hear stuff around the league,” Suzuki said. “All you do is you do your due diligence and you try to prepare yourself to not get into that situation. We just did our homework on our end and did everything we possibly can to combat the rumors going around and we just prepared ourselves. That was the bottom line: just getting ready for it if it did happen.”

His session of diffusement ended with a nod to Max Scherzer’s comments from when spring training began. Scherzer bounced back questions about the Astros by advising reporters to go talk to them. 

“That’s their situation,” Suzuki said. “I think Scherzer said it best. They are the ones that have to do the answering. We’re just getting ready for the 2020 season to defend the title. That’s it. We’re getting ready, enjoying our teammates, enjoying the World Series and getting ready for the season.”

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Everyone notices when Victor Robles arrives at spring training

Everyone notices when Victor Robles arrives at spring training

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The double doors from the field into the Nationals clubhouse pushed open Saturday morning, and in strode Victor Robles.

He was dressed mostly in black, his preferred thin hoodie up over his head, big gold watch on his wrist, and general mojo bursting about. Robles made announcements in Spanish and English. He provided hugs for most. Not long after walking in, he ended up in one of his common reclining positions, this one inside a mobile laundry basket, folded like an overgrown kid in a shopping cart. Robles laying on the floor with his legs on a folding chair while burning through his phone will come later.

The clubhouse was sparsely populated upon his arrival Saturday. He ventured down the freshly-painted hall and ended up in the manager’s office, previously existing as a serene setting. Music drifted out of the open door. A green candle passively burned. Davey Martinez, once again able to drink coffee thanks to a clean bill of health, was doing some reading.

“He just came in really loud,” Martinez said. “I said, ‘What are you doing here? I’m not supposed to see you until Monday. Come back Monday.’”

And an addition: “I love him.”

Robles was the Saturday jolt in West Palm Beach on an otherwise bleak day. Rain romped through in varied bursts. The workout was cut short, everyone packed and Washington’s side of the spring training complex receded peacefully into the afternoon after the pitchers threw. Meanwhile, their fellow residents at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches continued to tussle with the world at large.

Amid the rain, Robles wandered out to the batting cages with two bats in hand and wearing a T-shirt he manually removed the sleeves from. One of the questions -- of the few in what is a stable camp with limited open spots and decisions -- is what kind of growth will come from Robles.

Will he step forward on offense, helping to mitigate the offensive production loss from Anthony Rendon’s departure? Will he move up in the lineup if he’s more disciplined at the plate? Where is his offensive ceiling a year after he became a Gold Glove finalist in center field?

The defense is there. Robles pushed aside much of the rawness he dealt with early in the season to become one of the league’s best defensive outfielders. His lack of experience coupled with determination to run into anything in his way caused specific concern among the Nationals’ coaching staff when the team went to Wrigley Field for the first time. The message to Robles about playing in Wrigley? “The wall is brick. You will lose.”

But, this is how Robles does things; he's living an upbeat baseball life destined to crash into the ground, a pitch, the middle of chaos. His approach also influences his plate performance. Robles swings often -- almost 49 percent of the time last season -- and is swinging at pitches out of the strike zone 31.9 percent of the time. For a comparison point: Juan Soto left the zone on 23.4 percent of his swings and swings 40.8 percent of the time overall.

“If you look at Vic’s numbers in the minor leagues, his on-base percentage was actually pretty good,” Martinez said. “We’re trying to get him -- we want him to be aggressive in the strike zone and stay within himself. That’s something we talked to him last year when he left and I know that [Kevin] Long is going to harp on it this year. Be aggressive in the strike zone, take your walks.”

Robles stole 28 bases last season despite a walk percentage of 5.7 and on-base percentage of just .326. He struck out almost four times as much as he walked.

So, the room for growth exists. The need for improvement also exists because Rendon left and the gap needs to be closed somewhere. How Robles will get there is among the spring training questions. Whether he will be heard from is not.

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