Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Best Postseason Win: Washington Nationals

The Washington Nationals have now existed for eleven years. In those eleven years, they have made the playoffs twice, and in both of those appearances, they have lost their first series.

So we're not drowning in a sea of options here. Fortunately, one of the team's three postseason wins is pretty good - 2012 NLDS Game 1: Nationals 3, Cardinals 2. The game matched up (maybe) the best pitchers on each team - Adam Wainwright, who had missed 2011 due to Tommy John surgery and spent 2012 still showing the effects, and Gio Gonzalez, who I believe became the first starter ever to win 20 games without throwing 200 innings.

Neither starter allowed a hit in the first. Washington first baseman Adam LaRoche led off the top of the second with a walk (note that the Nats, despite having the better record, were the road team in Game 1; MLB had adjusted its playoff format to add the single-game Wild Card round, which resulted in the removal of a travel day from the LDS schedule, which in turn meant that the lesser team was home for Games 1 and 2 rather than 3 and 4). A one-out Ian Desmond single moved LaRoche to third, and a two-out hit by Kurt Suzuki scored him with the first postseason run in Nationals history. Gonzalez then drew a walk to load the bases, but Jayson Werth grounded out to end the inning.

The Cardinals countered quickly, thanks entirely to Gonzalez's wildness. Yadier Molina led off the bottom of the second with a walk, and one out later, Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma walked as well. A wild pitch brought Molina in to tie the game, and after Wainwright walked to reload the bases, Jon Jay hit a sacrifice fly to put St. Louis in front. The inning ended with the Cards having tallied a pair of runs despite Gonzalez having an intact no-hitter.

The scoring petered out from there. The Nats picked up lone singles in the third, fourth, and fifth innings, but only one of the runners made it as far as second base. St. Louis achieved its first hit of the day in the fourth, and drew a pair of walks in the fifth, but Gonzalez managed to strand the runners in both cases.

Both starters were pulled at the same time in the top of the sixth; Wainwright allowed a leadoff hit to Mike Morse and walked Suzuki with two outs, then was pulled for Lance Lynn as Roger Bernadina stepped to the plate to hit for Gonzalez. Lynn walked Bernadina, then struck out Werth to leave the bases loaded and preserve the 2-1 lead. Craig Stammen gave up a single to David Freese and hit Kozma with a pitch before escaping the bottom of the inning. Edward Mujica was perfect in the top of the seventh, and Stammen got into more trouble in the home half; Jay led off by reaching on a LaRoche error, Carlos Beltran singled, and Matt Holliday was plunked to load the bases with nobody out. Ryan Mattheus relieved and coaxed a force at home from Allen Craig, followed by an inning-ending double play from Molina.

Mattheus's salvaging of the seventh-inning jam was rewarded in the top of the eighth. Morse greeted reliever Mitchell Boggs by reaching on a Kozma error, and Desmond singled him to third. Danny Espinosa sacrificed Desmond to second, with Morse holding position at third. Suzuki then struck out. Chad Tracy was summoned to pinch hit, and the Cardinals countered with lefty Marc Rzepczynski. Washington in turn pulled Tracy in favor of Tyler Moore, and the double substitution paid off, as Moore singled on a 2-2 pitch to score both runners and put the Nats back in front, 3-2.

The rest of the game passed pretty quietly; Tyler Clippard worked around an error in the eighth, and closers Jason Motte and Drew Storen both registered 1-2-3 ninths. Still, the swing from bases loaded, nobody out in the bottom of the seventh (win expectancy of 13%) to the Nats taking the lead in the top of the eighth (75%) was both quick and sharp, and the earlier innings had a healthy share of scoring chances, both converted and otherwise.

Overall, the game scores at a WPL of 4.19, good for the 90th percentile among playoff contests. It was a wonderfully promising start to a new era of Nationals baseball - which came to a crashing halt four games later, and hasn't quite managed to get rolling again, as they missed the playoffs in two of the following three seasons and lost the NLDS again in the other. If the current Nats never get any further than they have, there's probably a book to be written about what went wrong - and this game would have a substantial part to play in it, representing the soon-to-be-crushed hopes of a nascent dynasty.

If you insist on picking runners up among a set of three games, your other options are either Game 4 of this series, which managed to be fairly dull despite being close and ending on a walkoff homer, or Game 3 of the 2014 NLDS, which was scoreless through 6, then broken open by the Nats. Both games were fine; neither was terribly special.

The next team we'll visit amassed more playoff victories than the Nats have so far - but not by much. We'll be reviewing the best postseason win of the pre-Nationals, or inter-Nationals, if you will - the Montreal Expos.

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