Nationals Arm Race

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NLDS Game 1 Recap: Gonzalez the Escape Artist

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The team escaped Game 1 with a victory despite Gonzalez’s struggles. Photo Joy Absalon/US Presswire via usatoday.com

Nats take Game 1 of the NLDS 3-2.

You know your pitcher is having a rough day when the score line reads “2-0-0.”  As in, 2 runs, 0 hits and 0 errors.  That was the score at the end of the second, an inning in which Nats starter Gio Gonzalez had walked no less than four batters, thrown a wild pitch and given up a sac fly for the second run despite giving up zero hits.

TBS broadcast a stat showing Gonzalez’s ERA on various days of rest; the key stat was that he had a 5.80 ERA when he had more than 5 days rest.  His days rest entering Game one of the playoffs?  Nine days.  He last threw in Philadelphia on September 27th.

Being able to rest your starters and “set up” your post season pitching rotation can be a blessing and a curse.  Today it was a curse; clearly Gonzalez was overthrowing, missing his spots, and his pitching line showed it.  He didn’t trust his curve early, was relying solely on his fast ball and couldn’t locate it to his desire.  To his credit he settled down for a couple innings, got a couple of very timely plays in the field, and exited having given up a sole meaningless hit to go with seven walks in 5 innings.  To me it looked like he was over-throwing, that he was “too strong.”  Starters are creatures of habit; throw one day, rest the 2nd, toss the 3rd, bullpen work the 4th, rest the 5th and then repeat.  When too many extra days are thrown in, younger guys can get off schedule.

In the first inning I thought perhaps Gonzalez was trying to “save” his curve for later in the game; a great strategy for professional pitchers who can do it.  Instead of showing guys your whole arsenal the first time through the order, pound them with fastballs and make them hit your pitch.  Then, in their 2nd and 3rd at bats mix in curves and off-speed stuff as out pitches as needed.  If you play your cards right, you can work through each hitter’s 3 at-bats keeping them off-balance and suddenly you’re deep into the 6th or 7th inning as a starter.   As it turned out, he wasn’t trusting his curve at all, and suddenly he was pressing to hit his spots.

Craig Stammen escaped an incredible jam in the bottom of the 7th, having loaded the bases with none out.  Usually that situation has a run expectancy of somewhere greater than 2 runs but the Nats defense came through; an Ian Desmond force out at the plate for the first out then a clutch 5-4-3 double play to end the inning.  Despite Tyler Moore‘s late inning heroics, this was the key of the win.

Adam Wainwright showed exactly why he’s a Cy Young candidate when he’s healthy; his curve-ball was absolutely fantastic on the night.  The already-strike-out prone Nats fanned 10 times, many times on a fantastic curve that Wainwright was controlling and commanding to the outside corner.  I was surprised when he got the hook despite being on 100 pitches; as it turned out he probably wasn’t going to finish 7 complete regardless.  You can’t really fault the bullpen management by Cards manager Mike Matheny; he had his 8th inning guy on the mound (Mitchell Boggs) and the Nats beat him.

Other thoughts from watching the game:

  • I scoffed aloud when the TBS announcing crew spoke of Ryan Zimmerman‘s defensive prowness and said that “he rarely makes throwing errors.”  Really?  I know they don’t watch Nats games normally but the narrative behind Zimmerman’s throwing issues on non-pressure plays is well documented in DC.  He had 12 throwing errors on the year, and his 19 total errors tied him for 3rd in baseball.  Sure enough, a throwing error in the bottom of the 8th put the lead-off guy on board and caused the inning to be far more stressful than it needed to be for Tyler Clippard.  Guy on first with nobody out?  Roughly an 85% chance he scores.  For years I’ve defended Zimmerman and talked of the ridiculousness of “wasting” his defense by moving him to first, but the fact remains that every time he fields a routine ground ball I’m waiting for him to air-mail the throw.  When Anthony Rendon is ready to hit at the major league level, I think the talk is going to be about Zimmerman moving to first and not Rendon moving to another position.
  • For as clutch as Moore, Ian Desmond and Kurt Suzuki were on the day, Jayson Werth and Danny Espinosa were the opposite.  TWICE Werth squandered bases-loaded situations with two outs, leaving a total of 7 guys on base.  He may be our current lead-off hitter, but he’s normally a middle-of-the-order bat and he needs to capitalize on situations like that.  In Werth’s defense (no pun intended), the over-the-shoulder grab was a game-saver in its own right, so on a day when he disappointed at the plate he made up for it in the field.  Meanwhile it was not really shocking that Espinosa whiffed over and over; he led the NL in strikeouts on the season and was batting from his clearly weaker side.
  • How about Tyler Moore?  A fantastic job of hitting, hitting a pitcher’s pitch and not trying to do too much with it.  The old “game winning RBI” stat went the way of the Edsel, but tonight the clubhouse knows exactly who won that game.
  • Here’s to the return of “Clip-Store-and-Save.”  Clippard escaped Zimmerman’s throwing error in the 8th and Drew Storen dispatched two of the best St. Louis hitters in a 1-2-3 ninth.  The team has to feel great about its bullpen on the night.  No worries about using your 3 best guys; they’ll all be able to go tomorrow then get a travel day of rest.
  • The ridiculousness of the Hold stat: Boggs was credited with both a “Hold” and the Loss.  How is that possible?  Because he put on the go-ahead run that Mark Rzepcynski eventually allowed to score.  I think the Hold stat would carry more weight if it was withheld from relievers who don’t actually “hold” the game at bay and who contribute to the blown save and (if applicable) eventual loss.
  • The sideline reporter couldn’t help but compare the handling of Wainwright to Stephen Strasburg; both had Tommy John surgery last year.  He said the Cardinals “trusted” Wainwright more and let him pitch 200 innings.  But they didn’t really talk about the real difference: Wainwright is into the club option portion of his FA contract and is no sure thing to stay with the team beyond 2013.  He’s also 30.  Compare that to Strasburg; he’s 23 and is under team control for at least four more seasons, and is likely to be offered a multi-year contract that buys out those arbitration seasons and a couple of FA seasons beyond that (similar to the deal Gonzalez signed).  The point is; the Nats know they’ve got this guy for years to come and clearly played it conservative with his re-hab.  Why this point is glossed over by pundits and bloggers is beyond me.  Every time I hear some know-it-all say things like, “there’s no proof that letting him pitch more than 160 innings will harm him” my blood boils.  Well, there’s no proof to the other side either!  The fact is you can either be reckless with your major investment and overuse him, or you can play it safe and hope for the best.  There’s no guarantees in life and thus there’s no guarantee that Strasburg won’t blow out his elbow again in 2013.  But on this point I can guarantee; had the team continued to ride Strasburg down the stretch, push his innings to 190-200, and then he re-injures himself in the last week of September?  You can guarantee all those know-it-alls would immediately be clucking their tongues about how the Nats “mis-used” Strasburg and should have played it safer.  I don’t envy Mike Rizzo this post-season, because unless the Nats win the world series there’s going to be the inevitable stories about how the Nats would have won had they kept their Ace in the rotation.  To borrow a quote from Major League, “Well, I guess then there’s just one thing left to do … win the whole !?@& thing.”  (link NSFW)

Great comeback by the Nats, snatching a win in a game they probably should have lost.  They now have the split in St. Louis and are in a commanding position to win this short series.

10 Responses to 'NLDS Game 1 Recap: Gonzalez the Escape Artist'

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  1. A quick glance at the same “days rest” stats for Jordan Zimmermann shows a different picture than for Gio. http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.cgi?id=zimmejo02&year=&t=p Jordan pitchers better with 6+ days rest than he does with 5. A better sign for today’s game, which he’ll be making on 8 days rest. His splits are slightly unfavorable for day games .. but then again, a 4:30 game with shadows creeping across the field is slightly different from a 1pm game with the sun directly overhead…. feeling good about tonight.

    Todd Boss

    8 Oct 12 at 10:10 am

  2. No love for Ryan Mattheus? He’s the one who escaped that 7th inning jam. Stammen only caused it :)

    Chris

    8 Oct 12 at 11:03 am

  3. Fair enough; gave the defense credit for the plays but not to the pitcher who induced the two ground balls the team needed.

    Todd Boss

    8 Oct 12 at 11:07 am

  4. And sorry, didn’t mean to be that guy who hunted for something wrong. You’re spot on about Gio. I hope the same thing doesn’t happen with Jordan tonight.

    And great point about Rendon. Watching Zimm throw when he has time is painful. You can tell the guy is over-thinking things.

    Chris

    8 Oct 12 at 11:10 am

  5. I pulled up Zimmermann’s days rest after the fact; he’s great on 6+ days rest, unlike Gio. He’s also better away from home. So the stars are aligned for a 6ip 2 hit performance out of Jordan. Fingers crossed.

    I’m starting to get onboard a move to 1B for Zimmerman for a number of reasons. He can still make use of his plus-defense, probably immediately becomes the presumptive gold glove candidate (primary competition; Joey Votto and Adrian Gonzalez), he moves to a far less physically demanding position than 3B (since he’s so injury prone), he doesn’t have to make as many throws in general (easier on the shoulder that he’s had injected 4 times this y ear), and the throws he would have to make as a 1st baseman will all be “high-leverage” throws without ever thinking about them (he almost never makes a throwing error on throws where he doesn’t have to think about it, right?).

    The only downside is that he’s clearly a fantastic physical defender in terms of range at third … but if we have another plus defender coming up (as is alleged with Rendon) then the pill isn’t so bitter to move him. Of course …. installing Zimmerman at 1B also means that we’re pulling the plug on LaRoche, and that the likes of Michael Morse and Tyler Moore are forever stuck in left field. I don’t have a problem stashing a sub-par defender in left … but I think Rizzo maybe does.

    A problem for a later time … maybe in mid 2014 when (hopefully) Rendon is mashing in a sub role and we need to find someplace for him to play.

    Todd Boss

    8 Oct 12 at 11:39 am

  6. That 8th inning botched throw by Z’man took so long that it seemed to unfold in slow motion to me. He seemed to have a brief problem getting it out of his glove, then you could actually see the gears start churning in his head as he appeared to start thinking about the throw, and then double-clutched his arm in a way that looked like a quarterback making a pump-fake. Sure, the throw was errant, but if this was a football game he would have totally faked-out the defender, and we’d all be toasting another masterful touchdown pass from Ryan Zimmerman! (Also, LaRoche should have fielded the ball on a bounce. Not has best effort.)

    As for the Strasburg story, I owe you an apology, Todd. I believed that story had run its course because I hadn’t heard a peep about it over the last two weeks of the season. But, just like you said, the commentators start talking about it again in the playoffs. I’m right with you on the “blood-boiling” feeling. It must be really easy to gamble with someone else’s money. These commentators risk nothing by “boldly” exclaiming their opinions, and if Strasburg got hurt they’d collectively respond “oops, that didn’t pan out, did it? Oh well, on to the next story!” Ugh. Can’t they limit themselves to talking about the players on the playoff roster?

    clark17

    8 Oct 12 at 2:46 pm

  7. I almost wonder (with respect to Zimmerman) if he shouldn’t force himself to make the hurried throw every time. As in, purposely delay and delay and then suddenly his brain would go, “Oh no I have to get that ball over there right now!” and then he’d revert to his natural, year’s honed throwing motion, without any brain getting in the way, without any nervousness or hitches. Because we all know, when he’s throwing on the run or he’s picking up a tapper/bunt he always makes the spot-on throw. It has to be infuriating, both to Zim and to his coaches, that he makes hard plays look easy but then makes easy throws more difficult than they need to. LaRoche got eaten up on two plays in the game; very uncharacteristic. I’m writing it all off to first post-season game jitters all the way around. All the more reason why yesterdays’ victory was really “stolen.” The team won playing that badly all the way around … imagine now that they know what its like to hear 50,000 fans screaming, the tenseness, the importance of every playoff pitch. I mean, we all know what its like to play baseball in pressure situations, so its not like any of these guys can’t draw upon past pressure situations (high school district finals, AAU playoffs, things like that).

    We asked Clippard about Strasburg questions while playing golf. His reaction was (paraphrased), “Yes we were all getting pretty sick of hearing questions about him. Now that its over, we don’t hear questions as much but they’re still there.” The problem nats fans are going to go through now is a completely NEW set of national broadcast teams and national media the further they go in the playoffs, NONE of whom have had the opportunity to state their opinions yet. Uuuuugh. Imagine what the blow-hard Joe Morgan-Joe Buck team is going to say!?

    Todd Boss

    8 Oct 12 at 2:53 pm

  8. Great fangraphs link on Zimmerman, Wainwright, Gonzalez and other items. http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/arms-and-three-men-notes-on-the-nats-cards-series/

    He notes that basically Wainwright had “one of the best starts” of his career, Gonzalez had nearly the worst start of the season, and the Nats still won. Wow. I knew Wainwright’s outing was good but not this good (by FIP-).

    Todd Boss

    8 Oct 12 at 3:00 pm

  9. Follow up on Strasburg mentions … i’ve read at least 4 different national writers/bloggers today who have thrown the whole, “Gee wish you had Strasburg” lines out there. Schoenfield, Calcaterra especially snide about it.

    Todd Boss

    9 Oct 12 at 3:28 pm

  10. Here you go Clark17. The national media didn’t even wait until GAME THREE of the divisional series to rollout the first “Gee wish you had Strasburg” article. http://msn.foxsports.com/mlb/story/washington-nationals-missing-stephen-strasburg-presence-in-the-postseason-100912

    Todd Boss

    10 Oct 12 at 10:21 am

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