The Longest Game

I’m just getting back from Game 5.

Metaphorically, that is. In fact, I returned home from Nationals Stadium at 2:30 a.m. Friday, after the longest game in NL playoff history (4 hours, 32 minutes) ended in the Nats’ elimination from the baseball playoffs, and after a traffic jam, fueled by Metro’s refusal to extend service past midnight, had kept me stalled on Half Street for another hour.

But the game’s reach extended beyond 2:30 a.m. on Friday. My dreams that night were filled with pitching changes and double switches, and strike outs with men on third and less than one out. A week later, Game 5 still lingers.

Was this Game 5 loss worse than Game 5 of 2012, when the Nats blew a 6-0 early lead and a 2-run lead in the ninth? How did it compare with 2014 when manager Matt Williams’ bad choices cost them two games against an inferior opponent? In the aftermath, it felt like the worst of all.

Because they lost, again, Game 5 will reverberate far into the future, extending the Nats’ image as postseason underachievers and feeding into the notion that they lack playoff muster. Just too many failures at moments of truth. The Nats had Game 5 on their turf with their ace, 20-game winner Max Scherzer, ready to go. The Dodgers led with 36-year-old journeyman Rich Hill, the game 2 starter. Hill’s lifetime record over 10 seasons was 26-23. A year ago he was pitching for the Long Island Ducks. It was a game the Nats should win.

What happened?

Was manager Dusty Baker outdueled by Dodger skipper Dave Roberts? Absolutely. Roberts, in his first year as Dodger manager, conducted a bullpen management clinic. We should have known genius was at work when he lifted Hill after 2 2/3 innings when he was pitching well. He had fanned thirteen Nats in seven innings of work, primarily with a baffling curve ball which travels 73-74 mph and moves both sidewards and downwards. But Hill had been nicked for one run, and Roberts was leaving no room for another. Power righty Joe Blanton snuffed a Nats rally and pitched a clean fourth.

Then Roberts inserted 20-year-old starter Julio Urias to pitch the fourth and fifth. He defied convention when he inserted closer Kenley Jansen to pitch the seventh and eighth innings and into the ninth; and in a managerial coup de grace, he summoned stud starter Clayton Kershaw on one-day rest to get the final two outs with two men on in the ninth.

Conversely, Baker’s rapid removal of Scherzer after Joc Pederson homered to lead off the seventh had backfired. Baker used five pitchers after Scherzer in the seventh inning alone, setting a record for most pitchers used in an inning, and the Dodgers scored four times. The seventh inning lasted 66 minutes. In the course of the multiple mound changes, Baker made two double switches which cost him Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon at crunch time. The double switch is a convenient tool to push back the pitcher’s position in the batting order, but Baker overdid it. Suddenly Baker’s 0-9 record in playoff deciding games is no longer a mystifying stat.

But you can’t blame Baker for the outcome, not when he was such a huge upgrade all year long over Williams, and not when the Nats blew so many chances on the field. If there is a common denominator to the Nats’ postseason troubles, it has been their failure to make the most of scoring opportunities. And that’s what happened in Game 5.

The primary culprit was Jayson Werth. Because his arrival as a free agent in 2011 coincided with the Nats’ improvement as a team, and because of his monster game-winning home run in game 4 of the 2012 NLDS, Werth has gotten a pass. He earns prime star money at $18 million a year, but his average stat line since joining the Nats is .270, 16 homers, and 60 rbi’s. In the last two years, he has batted .221 and .244, respectively. He can be a black hole in the middle of the line-up when he is batting second or third.

Werth hit well during the first four games of the series but it was fools gold. In Game 5, he reverted to form. He struck out three times, twice with a runner on third and less than one out. With the Nats ahead 1-0, Trea Turner led off the third with a single to left. He promptly stole second. Then, after Bryce Harper’s medium drive to left center, Turner took off for third, narrowly edging Pederson’s laser-like throw with a head-first slide which originated at least fifteen feet from the bag. Safe. One out, Turner on third, Werth up.

Trea’s bold progression around the bases without a base hit was typical of his contribution. His arrival from the minor leagues in late July altered the Nats’ character and solidified their roster. He provided speed at the top of the order, solved the center field problem, and fortified the infield and outfield depth. He was Trea the Transformer. Derek Jeter on steroids.

Had the Nats advanced, Turner would have been the reason. Like Jeter, Turner is a tall, rangy shortstop by trade with a modicum of power. But he fields three positions, has the speed of a cheetah (22.7 mph at top speed), beats out infield grounders, and steals bases at will. His stats over 73 regular season games projected to .342 BA, 233 hits, 29 homers and 73 stolen bases for the full season.

So it was particularly important to this observer that Werth get the runner home – to reward Turner’s effort, and to manufacture a run in a playoff game where it might make the difference. Pre-Turner, the Nats squandered scoring opportunities. Now, through the devices of Turner, they were run creators.

But he’d need at least a minimal contribution from Werth to finish the job.”Just get the damn ball on the ground, and I’ll score,” Turner must have been thinking to himself.

But Werth struck out, and Turner was stranded on third. The importance of that second run cannot be discounted. Had the Nats led 2-0 when Pederson homered to lead off the seventh, perhaps Baker would have extended Scherzer’s leash and left him in the game. Werth continued his reign of error. In the sixth, after a walk, he was thrown out by a mile when he tried to score on Ryan Zimmerman’s double to the left corner; and he struck out in the seventh inning with one out and the tying run on third.

Werth’s problem is not just that he bats third and does not hit for average. His outs are predominantly strike outs, or feeble pop-ups to the right side. He is no more than adequate in the outfield. His lackadaisical approach to a flyball hit by Justin Turner in Game 4 cost the Nats a crucial run. He enters the final year of his contract in 2017.

The Nats should not wait until the end of his contract to reduce Werth’s role. Obtaining a righty-hitting outfielder with pop should be high on GM Mike Rizzo’s wish list. In the task of re-configuring the Nats from post-season failures to playoff victors, eliminating Jayson Werth will be an important first step.


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