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Nationals now have backs against the wall

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Nationals now have backs against the wall

For six months, they could stake claim to the title of "Best Team in Baseball." And after they won their first-ever postseason game Sunday afternoon, the Nationals had every reason to continue crowing about themselves.

Then they got beat up in St. Louis on Monday. Then they got beat up again on Wednesday, this time in front of a record-setting home crowd that gave the first playoff game in Washington in eight decades into a true playoff atmosphere.

And now, in the span of 72 hours, the "Best Team in Baseball" finds itself 27 outs from elimination before many on the roster have even had a chance to process what is going on.

"This isn't the situation we wanted to be in," shortstop Ian Desmond said following an 8-0 drubbing at the hands of the Cardinals in Game 3 of the NLDS. "But we're here and we're going to deal with it, just like we've been dealing with wins and losses all year long."

That was the prevalent theme throughout a somber Nationals clubhouse at the end of one of the more frustrating afternoons in team history. Just because they're facing a do-or-die scenario Thursday in Game 4, players don't believe it's necessary to change the dynamic all of a sudden.

"Our formula has worked pretty well," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I think it would be kind of bad to change it now."

Perhaps that philosophy works. There's enough talent on the Nationals' roster -- in the lineup, in the rotation, in the bullpen and on the bench -- to win two games in two days, no matter the opponent.

But there's also no proof that success from April through September guarantees success in October. The postseason, plain and simple, is a different animal.

Over the course of a 162-game schedule, there's always ample opportunity to snap out of funks, always another game to play and put yesterday's events in the rear-view mirror.

In a five-game Division Series, that's not the case. Every at-bat, every pitch is magnified. One clutch hit becomes the stuff of legend. One squandered opportunity becomes something that lingers all winter.

"That's how the playoffs are," Zimmerman said. "I think that's why all you have to do is get in. It's whomever's hot. These first series are obviously a little bit more leaning toward that, because it's such a short series. You get hot for a couple games, you have a commanding lead.

"But we've put ourselves in a good position by playing the way we did in the regular season, and now we have to win one game. If we win one game, we have a good chance with our guy on the mound."

Before they can get to their guy, Gio Gonzalez, in a decisive Game 5, the Nationals first need Ross Detwiler to lead them to victory in Game 4. That's easier said than done. The left-hander has enjoyed a breakthrough season in many ways, but he's still battle-untested, and the freshest memory of him with a ball in hand is the trouncing he took 10 days ago in St. Louis against the same lineup he'll face on Thursday.

"Det's capable of pitching a good game tomorrow," manager Davey Johnson said, shooting down any possibility of Gonzalez returning on short rest. "That's been our strength all year. These young guys have pitched great all year."

Great pitching is only one-half of the equation. It wouldn't matter who toed the rubber on Wednesday, because he couldn't have won a game when his teammates didn't score once.

A Nationals lineup that was among the most productive in the majors during the season's second half hasn't exactly gone ice-cold in the postseason. This team has put 36 men on base in the first three games of the series.

The problem, though, hasn't been putting men on base. It's been driving them in. After an 0-for-8 showing in Game 3, the Nationals are now a paltry 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position, stranding 30 total men on base.

The only three players who have come through in those situations: Kurt Suzuki, Tyler Moore and Jordan Zimmermann. Yes, the No. 8 hitter, a rookie off the bench and a pitcher.

Is that lack of playoff experience finally starting to show, with young hitters pressing at the plate in key spots?

"When you're down a few runs, you want to drive something in," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "You can get a little anxious then and try to take more than they give you. Probably later in the game, that was more the case, guys trying to do a little extra to spark something."

It's a natural tendency to try to do too much when the pressure is ramped up. How could anyone in a Nationals uniform not feel that when standing in the box on Wednesday with two men on base and two out, the crowd of 45,017 imploring him to do something special?

That, of course, is the last thing anyone wants to do in that situation. Yet there's no escaping the fact the Nationals have arrived at a moment of desperation.

After mostly cruising through their regular season with few hints of true adversity -- ie. facing a must-win situation -- they'll now arrive at the park on Thursday knowing this could be their final game of the year.

"I believe in this team, I believe in these guys," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "We've been here all year. Over a 162-game season, we were the best team in baseball. And I still feel that way."

The best team in baseball over 162 games, though, isn't always the best team in baseball over a five-game playoff series.

That's a lesson the Nationals hope not to learn over the next 48 hours.

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Here's how the Nationals outfield could sustain the loss of Bryce Harper

Here's how the Nationals outfield could sustain the loss of Bryce Harper

If the Nationals can’t re-sign Bryce Harper, don't expect them to go searching for a high-priced free agent like Michael Brantley to replace him. 

(A note: This is still an if! We haven't closed the door on Harper staying in DC.) 

The Nationals already have a promising in-house solution if Harper walks: Victor Robles.

Robles is currently rated as the fourth-best prospect in baseball, according to MLBpipeline.com. Robles has played 34 games for the Nationals over the last two season including 21 in 2018.  His slash line this September was .288/.348/.525 with three doubles, three home runs, a triple, and 10 RBI.

Of course there's upsides to known quantities like Brantley - even if he comes with injury concerns: He hit .309 last year with 17 home runs and 76 RBI last season. In 2014, he finished third in American League MVP voting. He had a slash line of .307/.385/.506 with 45 doubles, 20 home runs, and 97 RBI. The following season, Brantley led the Majors with 45 doubles. 

If you can’t stand batters that strike out, Brantley is the guy for you.

In 613 plate appearances in 2018, Brantley struck out just 60 times. His 9.5 strikeouts per 100 at bats was tied for second-best in the MLB. By comparison, Harper’s strikeout ratio in 2018 was 24.3%. As a team, the Nationals finished tied for sixth in fewest strikeouts per game (7.96). Additionally, Brantley led qualified hitters in contact rate (90.9 percent) and swinging-strike rate (4.0 percent) in 2018. 

But even with all that, there's some question marks here if the Nats opt to swap Harper for a slightly lower-priced free agent: Brantley is a left fielder.

Over his career, Brantley has spent some time in center field but has not played there since 2015. What would the Nationals outfield alignment look like if they signed Brantley? 

Of the 112 games Juan Soto started with the Nationals this past season, all 112 were in left field. Adam Eaton’s strongest defensive position is right field. The likely answer would be move Soto to right field (where he played in the minors), Eaton to center, and keep Brantley in left field. Eaton was the Nationals’ Opening Day centerfielder in 2017.

So while a team like the Phillies may be looking to spend the money on an outfielder like Brantley, if Harper doesn't return, don't expect the Nationals to enter the market. 

At least not while their prospects look so promising.

MORE ON MICHAEL BRANTLEY

 

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Explaining my National League ROY ballot

Explaining my National League ROY ballot

This was tight. Really tight. A category for the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. A category for the Nationals’ Juan Soto.

Sorting through 16 categories showed Acuna and Soto should have split the National League Rookie of the Year award. It also showed me a narrow advantage for Soto, which is why I voted him first, Acuna second and Dodgers starter Walker Buehler third. Once the votes from other members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America were added, Acuna won, Soto was second and Buehler was third. It wasn’t close. It should have been.

First, a thought about the general process here: Writers take this seriously. Once assignments for the awards are distributed, we start to talk about them in the Nationals Park press box. Even non-voters hop in on the conversation. Sympathies are relayed to those who have an extremely tight choice, as I did this season and last when I voted for MVP (I’m big in Cincinnati thanks to my Joey Votto selection).

I outline specific categories, talk to opposing players and managers and watch as much as possible in order to come to a conclusion. The only thing easy about voting for ROY this season was the chance to see the leading candidates often since one played here and the other is in the division.

I used 16 categories to largely determine my vote. They were as follows: OPS, OPS+, Baseball Reference WAR, Fangraphs WAR, Baseball Prospectus WARP, OBP, WRC+, SB, HR, late-and-close OPS, 2 outs RISP OPS, BB:K ratio, WPA, “Clutch”, WOBA, and an overall defensive mark.

There’s no perfect formula here. But, when looking through those, Soto took nine, Acuna six and one, Fangraphs WAR, was even. That, coupled with Soto doing this in his age-19 season as the league’s youngest player (Acuna was just 20, so, like everything else the leader’s advantage here is slight), and talking to others in the league, prompted me to vote for Soto.

Again, the gaps were minute. Baseball Reference’s WAR formula favored Acuna. Fangraphs had them even. Baseball Prospectus put Soto clearly ahead. Soto was significantly better in late-and-close situations. Acuna was better with two outs and runners in scoring position.

If Soto had a distinct lead anywhere, it was via command of the strike zone, which is currently his premier talent. His walk and strikeout rates were both superior to Acuna. When asked about Soto, opponents and teammates alike brought it up.

However, Acuna is the better defender and baserunner. Points back to his favor.

Soto was intentionally walked 10 times signifying what opponents thought of dealing with him. Acuna was intentionally walked just twice (though his spot in the order has some influence there).

This ping-ponging of qualifications could go on.

What the National League East has is two of the best players in baseball. Not just young players at this stunningly low age, but two of the best. Soto was fourth in on-base percentage and seventh in OPS in the National League when adjusted to be among the qualified leaders (an explanation from Baseball Reference: In order to rank the player, the necessary number of hitless at bats were added to the player's season total.). Acuna was eighth in slugging under the same adjustment.

The 2019 All-Star Game is in Cleveland. Expect both to be there and this to be just the beginning of them being measured against each other.

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