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Nationals facing Cardinals in NLCS couldn't be more perfect after what happened in 2012

Nationals facing Cardinals in NLCS couldn't be more perfect after what happened in 2012

Ah, them again. The team that started it all. The St. Louis Cardinals, who grind out at-bats and do the little things to deliver playoff heartbreak in the cruelest of ways; they are back in a postseason clash with the Washington Nationals.

The Nationals have a detailed history of gutwrenching postseason failures. And all of it began on a blustery night at Nationals Park in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS when the Cardinals mounted the largest comeback ever for in a do-or-die playoff game. 

The Nats and their fans still aren't quite over that one, even though a series of playoff deathblows have been added to the list. Their win on Wednesday night in Game 5 against the Dodgers, which pushed them to the NL Championship Series for the first time in team history, certainly helped assuage the pain. But what happened in Game 5 of 2012 will never be forgotten due to it's agonizing extremes.

Gio Gonzalez' unraveling. Drew Storen's meltdown. Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso; the stuff of nightmares.

Now, seven years later, the Nationals will see the Cardinals again. In advancing to the NLCS, which is further than any D.C. baseball team has been since 1933, they will see a familiar enemy. Those Cardinals have once again defied the odds to go deep into October. And the Nationals have joined them, this time with the markings of a team of destiny.

The narratives have written themselves. First, the Nats dispatched a Dodgers team that featured not one, but two members of that 2012 Cardinals club, to exorcise their NLDS demons. L.A. has both David Freese and Joe Kelly, the latter of which gave up the fateful grand slam to Howie Kendrick in the 10th inning on Wednesday.

And, though seven years have passed, some of the figures on the Nats and Cardinals remain. Still on St. Louis are Adam Wainwright, the starting pitcher of Game 5 in 2012, and Yadier Molina, the ageless catcher who played in all five games that series. 

Matt Carpenter had four at-bats in the series and is still there. Matt Adams was a Cardinal then and is now a National.

On the Nationals, Ryan Zimmerman is still around. So is Kurt Suzuki, who left the Nationals the following season to play for three different teams before returning on a free agent deal this past winter.

Two players remain in Washington, that's it. Oh, actually, that's not entirely true. There is one more: Stephen Strasburg.

Yes, seven years after he was shut down for the 2012 postseason due to his recovery from Tommy John surgery, Strasburg is about to get a shot at the team he wasn't allowed to face. Though he technically wasn't on the roster for that series, his absence cast a long shadow over it.

Strasburg has since blossomed into one of the best postseason pitchers the league has seen in recent years. After tossing a quality start of six innings and three runs earned in Game 5 against the Dodgers, he sports a 1.32 career ERA in the playoffs. He has emerged as the October ace of a staff that also includes Max Scherzer, an all-time great, and Patrick Corbin, one of the best lefties in the game.

There are still many who wonder 'what if' when it comes to Strasburg in 2012, whether the Nationals would have beaten the Cardinals if he was in their rotation and not watching from the dugout. In many respects, the Nats' decision to end his season early paid off, as he has gone on to enjoy a successful and healthy career while earning a lucrative second contract.

But the Nationals haven't been able to get back to where many thought they could have gone. Mark DeRosa, for instance, was a member of that 2012 Nationals team and just weeks ago said on NBC Sports Washington's 'Nationals Talk' podcast that he believes "100 percent" they would have won the World Series that year if Strasburg wasn't shut down.

Now the Nationals have an opportunity in the NLCS to right some wrongs. If they win that round, they will advance to the World Series, something no D.C. baseball team has done in 88 years. And if they get there with Strasburg pitching well, perhaps some of those who have for years said 'I told you so' will finally shut up about it.

The fact the Cardinals are the team currently in their path is perfect. The Nationals have a chance to do something for the first time and they can eliminate a demon from their past in the process.


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Nationals, Astros wade into first spring training game after polar opposite weeks

Nationals, Astros wade into first spring training game after polar opposite weeks

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It’s tough to blot out the sun and joy in south Florida. Friday was an exception. The temperature dropped into the 60s, clouds won the day and if West Palm Beach can be labeled dreary, the title fit on Friday as the wind whipped around.

The poor weather forced the Nationals into a truncated workout before their first game of spring training. Typically, the Grapefruit League opener for each team would be a signifier of the creeping regular season. It’s not a thing. Certainly not a thing, thing. But that will be the case Saturday night when Max Scherzer faces the still-reeling Houston Astros.

The week has not been kind to the Astros. Meanwhile, the Nationals have mixed goofing around with standard practices.

Houston absorbed shots from multiple players, notably including Atlanta outfielder Nick Markakis, who said every Astros player “needs a beating,” which prompted Houston manager Dusty Baker to retort Markakis must have had his Wheaties that morning. Earlier in the week, a fan ran up and banged a garbage can when José Altuve and others were taking batting practice, then took off.

Washington was busy with a cabbage race on National Cabbage Day and mercilessly pelting the head of its public relations director with water balloons on his birthday. Music played, Scherzer tussled with Starlin Castro, Trea Turner and Adam Eaton when throwing live batting practice, and Howie Kendrick held a rematch with Will Harris for the first time as teammates.

No one talked about death threats, which Houston outfielder Josh Reddick did on Friday when mentioning some of the social media backlash he is managing. No one on the Nationals’ side prompted hi-jinks from fans. The air horn signalled when to move, modern rap or the gravelly of Chris Stapleton bellowed from large speakers, and everyone generally went about their business.

The question about Saturday is if anything out of the ordinary will happen. What if Scherzer loses command of a pitch in his first outing and hits an Astros player? Who decides intent? Baker is so concerned about retaliation against his players, he publicly called on the league to warn other teams. Commissioner Rob Manfred said he did as much when talking to a large chunk of managers at his annual spring training press conference. Tony Clark, executive director of the MLBPA, said Friday the issue remains on the minds of the Astros.

“When you have comments publicly that suggest certain things may happen on the field, it’s hard to ignore those,” Clark said.

Clark spent roughly four hours meeting with Astros players on Friday. A large “2017 World Series champions” sign was one of the few things above the 6-foot-8 head of the players’ union. He said Houston players were “contrite and direct” in their discussions with him and they were concerned about “making sure the game is in the best place possible moving forward.” Clark’s comment came at lunchtime the day after the Nationals went through a parade through downtown West Palm Beach to yet again celebrate winning last season.

Houston will not play its regulars Saturday. Washington will play a few. Joe Ross will pitch after Scherzer. Everyone will watch Carter Kieboom in the field at third base. Baker and Martinez should cross paths. In the stands? Who knows? Every stadium is filled with metal garbage cans and beer vendors.

“I’m hoping that on our side, I can’t tell you anything about the Houston Astros or what they’re going to do or whatever, but for us we act professional, we go about our business and we get ready for the season,” Martinez said. “Go out there and compete and just get ready to play.”

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As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

The unwritten rules of baseball say that when your team is wronged or disrespected by an opponent, it’s on the pitching staff to retaliate.

Whether spoken aloud or not, that rule will be put to the test this season when the Houston Astros play out their 162-game schedule. From AL West division rivals to clubs that lost to Houston in recent playoff series, teams from across MLB are trying to grapple with the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal that’s dominated the sport’s headlines for most of the offseason.

After many players came out voicing displeasure with MLB’s decision not to punish the players involved with the cheating scheme, Las Vegas sportsbooks put out an over/under total of 83.5 for the number of times the Astros will be hit by a pitch in 2020.

NBC4 Washington’s Lindsay Czarniak spoke with several members of the Astros on Friday about whether opposing teams would try to retaliate for their use of technology to steal opposing pitchers’ signs in real time during their World Series run in 2017 and parts of the 2018 season.

“I’m not concerned about that,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We’re grown men out here and whatever happens, happens. We just go out there and be professional and play the game.”

In 2019, there were 1,984 hit batters, or an average of just over 66 per team. Only one team, the New York Yankees, exceeded that total of 83.5 (they had 86 batters hit by a pitch). But despite MLB cracking down on pitchers intentionally hitting batters and handing out stiffer penalties for pitchers suspected of doing so, the number of hit batters has been on a steady incline the last half-decade.

In fact, the number of hit batters has increased every season since 2015. There were 1,602 batters hit by pitches that season, an average of 53.4 per team. That makes the 2019 total a 23.8 percent increase over the figure from five years prior.

Houston was right at the league average last season, watching its hitters take pitches of themselves 66 times. While the threat of disgruntled players deciding to take matters into their own hands looms, the Astros are preaching the same company line about only focusing on themselves.

“We can’t worry about that,” starter Lance McCullers told Czarniak. “That’s something that a lot of players have been speaking out about. We’re not sure if those players [are] speaking that way because they want to sound a certain way, they want to be portrayed a certain way. We can only worry about what’s in this locker room at that’s something that Dusty has really been preaching to us.

“We just got to go out there and we just got to play baseball and whatever comes along with this season we’ll address it and we’ll deal with it then.”

These comments also come on heels of MLB issuing a memo to teams laying out a new process umpires will be using to determine if pitchers are intentionally hitting batters during games. The umpires will now discuss the pitch in question among themselves before anyone is tossed, with managers being held more accountable. The change is reportedly not related to the Astros but comes at a convenient time for them and MLB.

That all said, 83.5 is still a high number for bettors to consider. It wouldn’t be unprecedented, but the Astros would most likely be among the most-hit clubs in baseball if they do approach that total.

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