Are the Nats postseason crisis junkies?

An unusual error and two RBI singles spoiled Strasburg's masterwork in the making . . .

An unusual error and two RBI singles spoiled Strasburg’s masterwork in the making . . .

The American League division series aren’t the only ones offering up surreality this time around. The National League is doing a good enough job itself. Unless you weren’t paying attention to Game One in Washington.

Never mind Clayton Kershaw surrendering four bombs and still winning Game One between the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks. The Cubs and the Nationals were a little juicier, even if the Cubs won by a measly 3-0 to open.

Revenge porn by the Nats’ assistant hitting coach, it is alleged. A no-hitter broken up by an unlikely fielding error and a couple of modest (by Cub standards) hits. A Game One loss the Nats couldn’t afford because their ailing ace of aces won’t be going until Game Three.

The often-injured, often-underestimated Stephen Strasburg pitched the game of his young life in Game One, and it went for nothing. Some say that’s the essence of Washington Nationals postseason baseball.

You can be pretty sure the Cubs would say it was the essence of Kyle Hendricks, their Game One starter, hanging tough and pitching likewise despite surrendering a couple of hits.

Strasburg came into the game having ridden a season that included a franchise-record 35 consecutive shutout innings and no home runs surrendered in seven starts. Even striking out Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant twice in Game One proved an exercise in futility.

“Stras threw the heck out of the ball,” said Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “That was fun to watch. Their guy also threw the ball well. You have to kind of do the little things right and take advantage of the breaks you get, like they did. But that was Game One. Obviously would have rather won that game, but it’s never easy.”

The proof came at the start of the Cubs’ sixth, when Nats third baseman Anthony Rendon, who had the fewest errors of any Show third baseman this year, bungled a chopper by Javier Baez that was normally so simple a child of five could have picked it and thrown him out.

“We’re all humans here,” Strasburg said after the game. “I tried to do my best to pick him up. I just couldn’t do it.”

After Hendricks sacrificed Baez to second and Ben Zobrist flied out to center, Bryant lined an 0-2 pitch the opposite way to right for an RBI single, taking second when Bryce Harper missed his cutoff man and tried to throw home to nail a swift runner who wasn’t likely to be nailed. And Rizzo followed up almost at once with his own single to right. Rizzo also sent the third and final Cub run home in the eighth with a two-out RBI double.

“Timely hitting,” Rizzo said after the game, “is huge in the playoffs.” Unearned runs can be, too. So can be Hendricks, the almost professorial opposite of Strasburg’s power approach.

“I think we don’t have a real advantage over the Cubs,” said Nats manager Dusty Baker, “because, you know, they have been here the last few years.”

Until Friday night, Strasburg really hadn’t. In 2012, he missed because the Nats prudently limited his workload in anticipation of just such nights as Friday night. In 2014 he got one division series start against the Giants, surrendered a measly two runs, and lost.

He never got another shot then because manager Matt Williams refused to bring him in from the pen in an emergency win-or-be-gone division series finish and the team’s fundamentals collapsed. And he sat out last year’s division series because of a torn pronator muscle.

Now Strasburg played the dominator. And even that wasn’t enough on a night Hendricks didn’t have a no-no of his own in the making but seemed to out-think the Nats’ hitters at will.

“He was tricking us tonight,” said Baker of Hendricks after the game. ”And it seems like those kind of guys give us more trouble than guys who throw hard.”

. . . and the pre-game news of assistant hitting coach Jacque Jones's suspension over a "revenge porn" lawsuit damped the Nats before Game One . . .

. . . and the pre-game news of assistant hitting coach Jacque Jones’s suspension over a “revenge porn” lawsuit damped the Nats before Game One . . .

The Nats have other trouble to worry about, too. Like assistant hitting coach Jacque Jones—once a fine major league outfielder mostly with the Twins, but also with the Cubs while Baker still managed the club—getting suspended over what the team said first was “a pending legal matter.”

It turned out that a woman with whom Jones ended a relationship recently accuses Jones of sending nude photographs of her out of revenge. The lawsuit names both Jones and the Nationals organisation. Filed on 29 September, it’s said to arrived to the Nationals just before Friday night’s game began. Baker wouldn’t say the Jones suspension took the wind out of his players’ sails but admitted it was “kind of a downer.”

Why the organisation, too? According to the lawsuit, as quoted by Deadspin, “employees within the Defendant Washington Nationals organization knew of Coach Jones’s propensity and predisposition to emotionally abuse and intimidate women.”

All of a sudden Baker having to send Gio Gonzalez out for Game Two Saturday, because Max Scherzer and his barking hamstring won’t be ready to go until Game Three, seems slightly insignificant. Or does it?

The Nats are one of the great regular season teams. They have yet to prove themselves an equal postseason team. They never like to admit feeling pressure, but they never seem to avoid it. It’s very tempting to suggest the Nats are crisis junkies.

If Jones is guilty as charged, that’s a black eye on the organisation that will heal in due course. He’s suspended with pay for now and would likely get the boot if he loses in court, unless the Nats’ overseers decide they can’t afford a man with a porn scandal on the payroll. Or anyone who knew what he was doing and kept his or her mouth shut.

Disposing of the Jones matter may actually be easier. The Nats have won four of the last six National League Easts starting in 2012, and they were pushed out of the postseason after their last three such conquests.

If the Nats don’t get past a division series yet again, a porn scandal involving their assistant hitting coach will seem small compared to earning a reputation as early postseason chokers. It’s enough to make a Nats fan lament that they just had to get the Cubs this time around.

The last thing a team trying to shake a reputation for early postseason futility needs is an opponent who takes its mistakes and buries it alive with them.

“These guys,” Baker said of his players before Game One, “are a pretty cool bunch of hard-nosed dudes.” He’d better hope they put those hard noses back into joint starting Saturday afternoon.

 

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