On the threshold of a dream

2019-10-14 StephenStrasburg
Striking out twelve in NLCS Game Three is child’s play. Getting Stephen Strasburg to crack a smile on the mound? That takes talent!

Roll over, George Stallings, and tell Yogi Berra the news. And send Phil Garner the bulletin while you’re at it. The Nationals are one win away from doing what only three teams in baseball history have ever done before. What a difference five months makes.

The 1914 Boston Braves, managed by Stallings—twelve games under .500 on 30 May; final record 24 games over .500 and into the World Series.

The 1973 Mets, managed by Yogi—twelve and a half  games under .500 on 15 August; final record three games over .500, winning the National League Championship Series and thus into the World Series.

The 2005 Astros, managed by Garner—twelve under .500 on 21 May; final record sixteen games over .500, winning the American League Championship Series and thus into the World Series.

Of the three only the Miracle Braves won their World Series; the You Gotta Believe Mets lost in seven games to the Athletics’ “Swingin’ A’s” (who swung in more ways than one), and the ’05 Astros got swept by the White Sox. (Who hadn’t won a World Series since the year before World War I ended.) It’s a shame nobody thought to stick a memorable nickname on those ‘Stros.

The Dancing Nats would like very much to become only the second major league team ever to win a World Series in the same year they were that far under .500 at one point. Even with their opponent standing to be whoever survives the Astros-Yankees skirmish in the ALCS, it’s not yet an unrealistic prospect.

That was the Nats on 24 May 2019: Twelve games under .500, the execution cocktail being mixed for their manager, and trade speculation finally if regretfully including no less than Max Scherzer himself. And you were tempted to pull out of your music library an ancient ballad by what was considered heavy metal music’s brainiest band in 1972, Blue Oyster Cult:

Then came the last days of May, I’ll be breathing dry air/
I’m leaving soon, the others are already there.
Would you be interested in coming along, instead of staying here?
They say the west is nice this time of year . . .

This is the Nats on Tuesday morning: Including the postseason, they’re 81-40 since the last days of May.

Sentimentally you want to believe a cancer-stricken ten-year-old whose lymphoma went into remission, got to spend 24 May with his Nats heroes, and throw a ceremonial first pitch changeup to Scherzer from the rubber to behind the plate got the Nats’ mojo working all over again.

Especially after Parker Staples threw out another such ceremonial first pitch before their Game Three demolition of the Cardinals Monday night. And the boy threw another changeup. Almost as wicked as the one Stephen Strasburg deployed among his other befuddling breaking balls.

But there were realistic reasons for the Nats’ self-resurrection: Trea Turner, Juan Soto, and Anthony Rendon got their health back. Soto turned the dugout into Soul Train after big home runs. Kid Gerardo Parra and old man Fernando Rodney brought some much needed more fun, fun, fun to the dugout and the clubhouse, from baby sharks to shooting pantomime arrows after shutdown innings.

Let the kids play? The Nats said let the kids of all ages play. All of a sudden, the next thing you knew was the Nats taking life and baseball one day, one game at a time, and remembering for all their game prep that Hall of Famer Willie Stargell had a point when he observed, “The umpire doesn’t say, ‘Work ball’.”

Rich or modestly well off individually, these Nats actually remembered how to play. Not just in the field, on the mound, or at the plate. This is Animal House, without the debauchery. These are the Alpha Omega Nats. You wouldn’t be shocked if they go out for laughing gas instead of dinner and drinks after games. Especially knowing that a lot of what’s happened since 24 May comes from playing each game for itself. They quit thinking the fate of the entire season rested on one game.

When even Strasburg—who usually looked so serious on the mound and in the dugout you wondered if he’d been raised in a Skinner Box—flashed big smiles after finishing a twelve-strikeout Game Three performance while his Nats made mincemeat out of Cardinals boy wonder Jack Flaherty and a few Cardinal relievers Monday night, you know things have changed in Natville.

It didn’t faze Strasburg one bit that he didn’t join the Nats’ almost-no-no parade. It almost fazed him more that his teammates wanted to smother him in a group hug after he was done. “They’re just trying to make Stras as uncomfortable as possible,” says outfielder Adam Eaton. “It’s great, and when Stras is uncomfortable, good things happen.”

When Parra tried to hug him, Strasburg replied with a few pats on the back but otherwise tried squirming away. Not a chance. “I’m not much of a hugger,” says Strasburg, who’s often seen as the most uptight Nat. “They kind of just surround me, so I just have to take it.”

He still doesn’t dare let himself enjoy a last laugh he’s earned so richly. But he should.

Remember when the world went ballistic over the Nats shutting Strasburg down in 2012, over a year after his career began with a bang that exploded into Tommy John surgery? You can’t do that when this might be his only chance at a World Series!!! the world cried angrily. You can’t tell us this kid’s future is that meaningless, the Nats shot back indignantly.

Now Strasburg’s 31. He’s gone from child prodigy to injury-compromised, from pitching student to . . . well, if not for Scherzer he’d be man of the house. Somewhere in there he became a dependable number two who comes up big enough when he’s needed enough. And he’s even learning to lighten up. There were times Monday night when you thought he’d actually crack a little smile in the split second before he delivered to the plate.

He’s also become one of the most quiet postseason horses in history; his 1.10 lifetime postseason ERA is second only to Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax among those who’ve started at least five postseason contests. And only one pitcher has ever worked a postseason game of twelve strikeouts or more without a walk: Hall of Famer Tom Seaver did that in Game One of the ’73 Series.

Some think the Nats put an end to the Cardinals’ season in the third inning Monday night. When Victor Robles—returning to the Nats lineup after being missing since Game Two of the division series with a hamstring tweak—shot a Flaherty slider, the one against which hitters on the season hit a measly buck eleven, not too hard but right past diving shortstop Paul DeJong.

When Strasburg executed what used to be a textbook sacrifice to the first base side leaving the Cardinals no possible chance of stopping Robles from taking second.

When Eaton with two outs bounced one right up the middle for the base hit that sent Robles home.

When Rendon smashed a hard foul near third base one pitch, then floated one toward the left field line for which Marcell Ozuna slid  only to have the ball bound off and out of his glove web, enabling Eaton to score and Rendon to have second. “Rendon does a good job of not punching out on what I felt was a pretty good executed pitch,” said Flaherty. “But that’s what he does. That’s why he is what he is.”

For Ozuna, who actually rated very well in left field this season as part of a very stingy Cardinals defense, that mishap was a mute horror. “Anytime you’re sliding feet first like that trying to make a play,” says Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong, “as soon as you hit the ground, there’s going to be some kind of movement, and I think that’s what jarred the ball out of his glove.”

Then it was a walk to Soto, a wild pitch to Kendrick setting up second and third, and a line drive all the way to the right center field fence. That, Flaherty says, is the one Monday night pitch he really wants to have back.

But Flaherty can’t fix the Cardinals’ bats. The Redbirds are in danger of matching the 1966 Dodgers who could only muster two runs while the Orioles swept them out of that World Series. The Cardinals’ two came because of Nats fielding mishaps. And they’ve never had a lead in any of the NLCS games so far. Pitching coach Mike Maddux’s much-talked-about pair of holes in one on the Army-Navy Club golf course earlier Monday beat anything the Cardinals did at the plate.

Their ineffectiveness against off-speed pitching is killing them. Killing them even more is that enough of them are being thrown by power pitchers who’ve figured out or re-learned that sometimes you can win battles the sneaky way. The Nats’ NLCS walks/hits per inning pitched rate? 0.52. The Cardinals’? 1.42.

That ten-run first-inning disemboweling of the Braves to win a division series they nearly lost now looks like a pleasant dream. And they’re on the threshold of a season in which they won the National League Central at literally the last minute turning into a hard day’s nightmare of a finish.

“It’s definitely better pitching than the Braves,” says outfielder Jose Martinez, who’s accounted for a little over a third of the Cardinals’ NLCS hits with his four. “They [Strasburg, Scherzer, and Game Four starter Patrick Corbin] are three of the best pitchers in the big leagues.”

And now for the weirdest part. For most of the season the Nats’ bullpen could have been tried by jury for arson. They finished with the worst bullpen ERA in baseball. Only one team ever finished a season with baseball’s worst pen and a trip to the World Series at all: the 1918 Red Sox. (Whose starting rotation included a guy named Babe Ruth.) They’d like to be the second there, too.

But four Nats relievers—Rodney, Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, and rookie Tanner Rainey—have turned up in the NLCS. Their ERA over four total innings work? Zero. The worst culprits in the hard-earned division series triumph, Hunter Strickland (18.00 division series ERA) and Wander Suero (27.00 division series ERA), may be being held in a remote cabin somewhere beyond the D.C. metro area with their overseers under orders to shoot them on sight if they even think about escaping to return to the pen.

The next-weirdest part? The Nats have overrun the Cardinals without relying on the long ball. Kendrick’s jaw-dropping, division series-winning grand slam, and Rendon and Soto’s solos earlier in that fifth game, seem like aberrations now.

The ball was juiced; the ball’s deadened, has been the postseason mantra from the conspiracy minded. The Nats couldn’t care less. Out of 28 Nat hits in this NLCS only two have flown into the seats or elsewhere over the fence and only twelve overall have gone for extra bases. The Cardinals’ eleven NLCS hits so far include only two for extra bases and none over the fence. They could have put the shots at the Nats and the Nats would have turned them into base hits.

“We’re a little flustered with trying to figure out how to get there,” says Wong, “but we know how good we are. Once we get going, man, this team, we steamroll.” You heard that allegation, too? The way these Cardinals are going against these Nats, Stan Musial himself couldn’t jump-start them, never mind put them back on the highway.

And it’s a shame. The Cardinals have taken it on the chin for a few years now. Former manager Mike Matheny was so incapable of deviating from his particular version of The Book to manage in the actual moment that he cost the Cardinals big in a couple of postseasons. Then Matheny lost his clubhouse and his job early enough in 2018, when among other things he let one veteran sourpuss be as close to a clubhouse bully as definable and then couldn’t walk back a public comment about “soft” young players.

And a rogue Cardinal scouting director was caught dead to right hacking into the Astros’ computer data base over a sixteen-month period. It made Leo Durocher’s then high-tech sign stealing to effect the 1951 Giants’ pennant race comeback resemble randy kids sneaking peeks at the comely housewife next door. Chris Correa’s been banned from baseball since, and for life, but he gave the entire Cardinal organisation an unfair image as cheaters.

The Nats haven’t been devoid of body blows, either. They overshot their mark against Matheny’s Cardinals in a 2012 division series win-or-be-gone Game Five, when they jumped the Cardinals for six runs in three innings, then started pitching as though trying for strikeouts on each pitch and hitting as though trying to hit six-run homers on each swing. They ended up losing, 9-7.

Later manager Matt Williams lost his clubhouse over his Matheny-like marriage to his own Book, his astonishing inability to communicate to the point where players often didn’t know they’d play until near the last minute before games, and his complete snooze when then-reliever Jonathan Papelbon tried choking then-right fielder Bryce Harper in the dugout after being eliminated in 2015 (get in his face over alleged loafing, sure; choke him, no way, Jose)—and Williams still sent Papelbon out to pitch the ninth instead of putting him through a wall himself.

“When, exactly,” since-retired outfielder Jayson Werth demanded to know of Williams at one point, very early in that season, “do you think you lost this clubhouse?”

And Dusty Baker found himself out of a job after two years, following the Nats’ spectacular fifth-inning implosion in Game Five of their 2017 division series against the Cubs in Wrigley Field. Baker may have learned his lessons about handling pitching but that implosion, through no fault of his own, wrote his pink slip after the series. When the 2018 Nats began with a reputedly uneasy atmosphere, Baker mused aloud, “Jayson Werth. That’s who they miss in that clubhouse.”

Scherzer, Strasburg, Rendon, Soto, and from-the-beginning mainstay Ryan Zimmerman seemed to prefer leadership by example over personality often as not. But something happened this season. A little new blood, a lot of remembering that baseball’s a profession but it’s also a game. And don’t let that 19-31 start get you down. One day at a time, gentlemen. Don’t stop the dance.

The Yankees and the Astros pick up in New York where they left off in Houston today, their ALCS tied at a game each. Wherever their set goes, whoever comes out as the last American League team standing, they’re not going to assume an easy time of things if the Nats do what no Washington baseball team has done since the birth of the New Deal.

Never mind doing what no Washington baseball team has done since Hall of Famer Walter Johnson—the historical antecedent for the Nats’ recent starters-as-relievers tactic—saved Game Seven of a World Series with four innings of scoreless relief. A month before Calvin Coolidge ran for and got his only elected term in the White House.

Of course the Nats have to win one more game first. They have Game Four coming and, if need be, three more shots at it coming. And even they know the Cardinals aren’t really as bad as they’ve made them look. But they really are thatclose to saying, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League.”

If they can get Stephen Strasburg to smile on the mound, these Nats just might be capable of anything.

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