Sunday, November 10, 2019

World Series Game Seven

In my opinion, very few people have really grappled with the significance of MLB's decision to institute the Wild Card after the 1993 season.  Before that change, MLB really rewarded depth and consistency.  It didn't do you that much good to go on a hot streak, or to only have a few really great players.  You had to do it day in and day out, over and over and over, just to get into the playoffs.  Very occasionally you might have a team like the 1973 Mets, who got very hot down the stretch, won a very weak NL East, and then rode its red-hot pitchers all the way to Game Seven of the World Series -- taking out the Big Red Machine and almost beating the legendary A's themselves along the way.  But that sort of thing was pretty rare.  Before 1969, you could not participate in the post-season at all unless you were the best team in your league over the course of the whole year.  Even during the divisional era, you had to be the best of a group of six or seven teams for 162 games.  Getting hot down the stretch didn't matter unless you had done the hard work the rest of the season.

For example, the longest winning streak in MLB history belongs to the 1916 New York Giants.  On Thursday, September 7, 1916, the Giants were mired in fourth place with a record of 60-62.  They then won twenty-five games in a row, giving themselves a record of 85-62.  Remarkably, however, they were still in fourth place -- and they had to wait until 1917 to win the pennant.  (Which they did, by 10 games.)

Now under that version of baseball, the 2019 Nationals never would have had a chance.  In the first place, they got off to a terrible start -- they were 19-31 after the first 50 games of the year, in large part because they left spring training with one of the worst bullpens ever seen.  In the second place, they were never able to mount much of a challenge to the Atlanta Braves.  The Braves dominated the NL East all year, and also had very little trouble with the Nats (going 12-7 against Washington in the regular season).  The Braves had a deeper lineup and a deeper pitching staff, and I don't think Washington could have caught them if the season had been 200 games long.

But as it turned out, Washington didn't have to catch the Braves -- or even to face them in the playoffs.  Nor did they have to rely on any of their second tier pitchers.  All they had to do, it turned out, was get to the playoffs as the wild card -- and then win the games started by Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.  And to do that, they really only needed offense from a few guys.  Here's how they did it:

1.  On October 1, the Nats hosted the Wild Card game against Milwaukee.  Scherzer started and immediately gave up three runs.  He lasted only five innings before being replaced by Strasburg, who held the fort for three innings more.  In the bottom of the 8th, down 3-1, the long-suffering Nats loaded up the bases for Juan Soto.  Soto whacked a single to right that was misplayed, allowing all three runners to come home and give Washington the lead.  The Nats then turned to one of their two good relievers, Daniel Hudson (who was picked up during the season), to close out Milwaukee in the 9th.

2.  Against the Dodgers, Strasburg won Game Two 4-2.  Then Scherzer won Game Four 6-1.  Then Strasburg went out for Game Five and gave up three runs.  But the Nats hung on, tying the game with back to back home runs in the eighth by Anthony Rendon and Soto.  Two innings later, a grand slam from Howie Kendrick finished off the Dodgers, who certainly would have won the game if it had lasted for another inning, thus forcing the Nats to use a lesser pitcher.

3.  The other pitchers did well against St. Louis, so that series was an easy sweep for Natstown.

4.  In the World Series, Scherzer started Game One and left with a 5-2 lead.  The Nats hung on for a 5-4 win -- the only time in the series their relief pitchers were really tested.  Strasburg won Game Two 12-3.  In Washington, Scherzer and Strasburg rested -- and the Nats were crushed by scores of 4-1, 8-1, and 7-1.  But Strasburg won Game Six 7-2 in Houston -- and Scherzer was ready for Game Seven.

The Nats had gotten all the way to Game Seven with only two good starters and timely hitting from Rendon, Soto, Kendrick and Adam Eaton.

In Game Seven, Scherzer again looked exhausted.  Inning after inning, it appeared that Houston would blow it open:

1.  In the second inning, Scherzer allowed a home run to Yuli Gurriel, and singles to Yordan Alvarez and Carlos Correa.  He then escaped with no further damage, with George Springer ending the inning on a sinking liner to left that was deftly snatched by Soto.

2.  In the third inning, Jose Altuve led off with a single, and advanced to second after a one-out walk to Alex Bregman.  But Gurriel and Alvarez ended the inning with long flies.

3.  In the fourth inning, Josh Reddick and Springer reached with two out to put men on first and second.  Alvarez came up and smashed a liner to deep center -- where it was caught.

4.  In the fifth inning, Michael Brantley led off with a single.  He was forced by Gurriel, but Scherzer then walked Alvarez to put men on first and second with two out.  This time it cost him, as Correa smashed a single past Rendon at third to score Gurriel.  Scherzer struck out Robinson Chirinos to avoid further harm and end the inning.

Meanwhile, Zach Greinke was toying with the Nats.  They were helpless against his array of soft tosses and agile fielding.  Time and again the Nats would beat the ball into the ground, only to see Greinke jump up and make another assist.

After six innings, Scherzer was gone -- Patrick Corbin had gotten out of the sixth by inducing Altuve to hit into a double play -- and the Nats trailed 2-0.  They had Eaton, Rendon, and Soto coming to the plate in the seventh, and it really seemed possible that this would be their last good chance of the year.  Up to this point, the Nats as a team had only one hit -- a single by Soto in the second, and it really seemed possible that Greinke would pitch a shutout.

Eaton grounded out to short.  And then, for the last time all year, Rendon responded to the pleas of Natstown.  He figured out one of Greinke's pitches, and lofted it into the bleachers in the short porch in left.  Once again, Washington had benefited from the weird dimensions of Houston's bandbox of a stadium.  For a team like Washington, which struggles to put together multiple hits -- and therefore needs home runes -- playing in Minute Maid Park was a tremendous gift.  I thought the Nats were unlucky to draw the Astros instead of the Yankees -- but now I am convinced that they could not have won this title without the opportunity to play four games in Houston.

So the score was Houston 2, Washington 1, and Soto was up next.  Remember that at this point Soto was still the only other Nat with a hit, so Greinke was careful -- and walked him.  Kendrick was up next.  (This was another big way that playing in Houston helped the Nats.  Kendrick is a great hitter, but his fielding is adventuresome, and the Nats had struggled to figure out how to use him all year.  By putting him at DH, the Nats were finally able to field their best lineup.)

At this point, Houston had two really good options.  They could stick with Greinke, who had only thrown 80 pitches and allowed two hits.  Or they could bring in Gerrit Cole, who is the best pitcher in baseball and who had humiliated the Nats in Game Five.  They did neither of these things.  Instead, they brought in Will Harris -- a very good set-up man who had been used four other times in the series.  His first pitch to Kendrick was a strike.  His second pitch was also in the strike zone -- and Kendrick hit an odd, curving fly ball to the opposite field in right.  It was sinking rapidly, and heading for foul territory, but it just kept going -- and going -- and finally boinked off the right field foul pole, only 316 feet from home plate.  Once again, Minute Maid Park had come through for Washington.  The Nats, who had done almost nothing the whole game, were suddenly ahead 3-2.

Houston sort of fell apart after that -- while the Nats, who know the weaknesses of their own bullpen, kept up the pressure.  Soto singled in Eaton with another run in the 8th to put the Nats up 4-2, and Eaton singled in two more for the final margin of 6-2.

In the end, the Nats' small group of stars had been enough to beat the mighty Astros.  Consider these facts:

1.  There were 36 innings played in the four games won by Washington.  Strasburg and Scherzer pitched 24 1/3 of those innings, with Corbin (another starter) throwing for four more.  Thus, the Nats' bullpen didn't have much to do in those four games.  In fact, in the last two games Nats relievers only recorded five outs, and all of those outs were recorded after Washington had a solid lead.

2.  The Nats' four best hitters -- Rendon, Soto, Eaton, and Kendrick -- outplayed their counterparts.  They combined for 32 hits, 13 walks, eight home runs, and 24 RBI's.  The Astros' four best hitters -- Springer, Altuve, Brantley, and Bregman -- combined for 33 hits, 13 walks, five home runs, and 15 RBI's.  As these figures show, both teams' stars played very well, and both carried most of the offensive load.  But the Nats' heroes came through with the home runs and RBI's and broke Houston's hearts -- especially in games Six and Seven.

All of this made for the type of Series that every 11-year-old fan dreams of -- a Series where the Nats' big stars consistently played well, and made every big pitch and every big hit that was needed.  Over and over again, just when you thought the Nats were about to be eliminated, Scherzer or Strasburg would escape from a jam -- or Rendon, Soto, Eaton, or Kendrick would blast a home run.

Of course, I've seen this sort of thing before.  Since the introduction of the wild card, a large percentage of World Series -- probably close to half -- are still won by really great teams -- teams like the Yankees of the 1990's, or the 2017 Astros.  But there are a lot of years where a team gets on a roll and goes all the way.  I saw the Marlins win two World Series -- in 1997 and 2003 -- with a Nats-like combination of solid pitching and timely hitting.  I saw the Giants do it three times -- in 2010, 2012, and 2014.  I saw the Cardinals do it in 2006 and 2011.  Sometimes the team stays together and competes in other years, like the Cardinals did.  Sometimes it's a one-off, like it was for the White Sox in 2005.  Whenever it happens, you just have the sense that it was that team's turn.  And this year, for the first time since 1924, it was finally Washington's turn.

But maybe that's not fair to the Nationals.  Before we close the book on the season, I should point out that after their 19-31 start, the Nats went 74-38.  That's a winning percentage of .661, which would work out to 107 wins over the course of 162 games.  It just so happens that the Astros did win 107 games in the regular season, and that the Astros and Nats played a hard-fought seven-game series.  So maybe the Nats weren't just "hot" or "lucky" -- maybe, at full strength, they really were just as good as Houston.  Maybe the Astros didn't blow it through poor game management or a lack of timely hitting -- maybe they were beaten by a better team.  I'm still not convinced -- I still think the Braves, Dodgers, Yankees, and Astros are better over 162 games.  But after watching the Nats in Games Six and Seven, I'm a lot more open to the idea that this year, Washington had a super team of its own.

Game Seven is almost certainly the last time this combination of Nats will take the field together.  Rendon and Strasburg have both filed for free agency, and everyone in Washington knows that the Nats don't have the money -- or the inclination -- to pay a large premium to both of them.  The Nats were also the oldest team in baseball during 2019, and its numerous veterans -- including team leaders like Ryan Zimmerman and Kendrick -- can't be expected to play at this level much longer.

My guess is that Washingtonians will be reasonable about having to face these changes.  No town is more patient with a plan than Washington, and the Nats' leadership has shown that it is worthy of our trust.  So we probably won't ever learn how good this group could be over a full season.  But we don't need to.  There are a lot of folks in Washington who have waited their whole lives for this year.  I've watched every baseball season since 1971, and I hadn't rooted for a pennant winner since 1988 (back when I was a Dodgers fan).  Thirty-one years is a very long time, and I never thought I would see an October like this one.  And I have to admit that when the title finally came to Washington, the beauty and drama of the games was even better than I would have guessed.  At my age, you never know if you'll get another year like this one.  But at my age, you're much more willing to believe that getting it once is enough.

3 comments:

  1. Excellent.

    Before the season, Richard Justice said on the Kornheiser podcast that he thought these Nationals, if healthy, were "an almost-perfect team." It was so fun to listen to that show all season--and to read your posts--and see things unfold so happily for all of you.

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  2. Oh, so now it turns out that we have no idea whether the Astros are a good team, after all, or just another bunch of idiot, stinking cheaters. Another sham champion, just like the Patriots. I'll be glad when we cycle out of this generation of losers.

    At least it makes the Nationals' triumph all the more impressive and glorious.

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  3. Second time that this has happened to the Dodgers. They were victimized by sign-stealing from the Giants in 1951.

    There are a lot of sports scandals in the 1950's, and I really don't know why.

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