Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

How does Nats-Cards NLDS Game 5 rate historically?


How “good” of a game historically speaking was Game 5 of the Nats-Cards NLDS?  How will this game be remembered historically?

I realize of course how difficult it is to objectively view the Nats meltdown in Game 5 from a baseball stand-point for Washington fans.  It was too much of a gut-punch game, too sudden, too unbelievable of a collapse by our closer Drew Storen.  And we’re all immediately on the defensive because the inevitable back-seat driver columns from hither and yon about how Stephen Strasburg would have won the series for us in the face of more than enough evidence to the contrary (as in, how exactly would Strasburg have factored into a 2-run lead given up by our closer in Game 5?)  But I wonder if this game goes down into the pantheon of great games, or if it will remain known as just an amazing collapse by Nats bullpen.

I touched on the topic of “Greatest Games” last fall, when I wrote in this space that I thought game 6 of the 2011 World Series was instantly among the best games of our lifetime.  The trap that we all fall into as sports fans is to immediately assume that the player or game we are watching today is immediately “better” than historical figures in each sport.  I see far too many articles in the sportswriting world that immediately declare that Such-and-Such a sports news item is the “worst trade” or “best game” ever played.   Strasburg is “the best pitching prospect the game has ever seen,” that is until the next “best there ever was” guy shows up.  We’re prone to hyperbole to get hits and sell papers, unfortunately.  But Game 6 last year was different; as I was watching it I was saying to myself that it was the best game I’d ever witnessed.

In that same post I also reviewed MLB Networks’ fantastic “Best 20 games of the last 50 years” series for context.  Going back to that list, the breakdown of games is as follows:

  • Regular Season: one game
  • Regular Season One-Game playoffs: Two games; from 1978 and 2009, both classic games.
  • Divisional Series: One game: the 1995 Seattle-New  York series with a walk-off win.
  • League Championship Series: Seven Games
  • World Series: Nine of the twenty games.

So, only one game of the 20 best from the last half century occurred in a Divisional Series, and it featured an upset over the historical Yankees and an amazing walk-off win at home with the crowd going wild.  I think baseball historians don’t give as much credence to divisional series games, no matter what the context of the game.  The Cardinals in Game 5 of this year’s NLDS may have just overcome the largest deficit in any elimination game in the history of the sport … but there was no walk-off win, no home crowd going berserk at the end.  In the Seattle/New York ALDS game on the top 20 list, two moments of individual brilliance by Hall of Fame quality players led to the win.  In the Nats-Cards game, two no-name middle infielders from St. Louis poked run-scoring singles to spoil a 2 run ninth inning lead against a young team with no post season experience and no baseball history.

So, perhaps thankfully, Drew Storen isn’t going to be unfairly remembered in the same vein as Bill Buckner and Steve Bartman; singular people unfairly blamed by an entire fan-base for failures by their team unfairly (If you think Buckner was solely responsible for the Red Sox collapse in that game, you need to watch the ninth inning again and pay attention to how badly Calvin Schiraldi pitched in the 10th.  And if you think Bartman is responsible for the Cubs pitchers giving up EIGHT runs in an inning, or blowing a 2-run lead in the 6th inning of game 7, then I’d suggest you check the game footage to prove that Bartman was in the stands and not on the field).  This game will stick in Nats fans memories for quite a while of course, but at least we won’t be seeing our failures on highlight shows for decades to come.

Written by Todd Boss

October 31st, 2012 at 10:54 am

7 Responses to 'How does Nats-Cards NLDS Game 5 rate historically?'

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  1. I’m glad you brought up Buckner, because that loss was totally on the manager, who should have been fired the minute the Series ended. Buckner had 2-3 screws in his ankle holding him together through the season. Any manager with brains would have had a defensive replacement in at that time.
    The same with Game 5, completely on Johnson, who managed to both choke and panic in the same game. Hard to be that bad. Total incompetence.

    Let’s hope Storen recovers from this; many times a reliever never does.
    Schiraldi never did, Mith Williams never did, and Donnie Moore was so distraught that he killed himself to end the pain.

    Mark L

    31 Oct 12 at 12:38 pm

  2. I hate that both Buckner and Bartman remain icons for their team’s failures. Especially Bartman, who really had nothing to do with the subsequent collapse of the Cubs, both the rest of game 6 and the next day in Game 7.

    I’m not sure what I would have done differently than Johnson did in Game 5 honestly. Gio gives up those 2 runs in the 5th, understood perhaps we should have yanked him earlier. is the box score; he went double-single-walk to open the inning; that’s bases loaded with no outs, almost a guarantee that 2 runs score and most likely 3 (which is eventually what happened). But it happend so fast nobody could get up in the pen so quickly. He gets a pop-out; now a double play to end the inning is in play. WP scores one, walk to load the bases puts the DP back in play. But you’ve got the #4 hitter up; do you trust your Ace to get out the opposing team’s best hitter there? Maybe he should have.

    From there, Jackson leaks in a run. Can’t complain about the Jackson insertion b/c Zimmermann worked out so well the previous night. But they could have (should have?) used Mattheus there, as they had done all season as a 7th inning guy. Clippard is your 8th inning guy; he gives up a cheap home-run. And you can’t ask for much more than your closer on the hill w/ a 2-run lead in the ninth. I dunno; I won’t second guess Johnson’s handling of the pen there at all.

    The oneplayer I worry about Storen becoming is Byung-Hyun Kim, a great regular season closer in 2001-3 but a god-awful post-season performer.

    Todd Boss

    31 Oct 12 at 1:49 pm

  3. Todd, I generally agree with you here. The only decision of Davey’s I question was the insertion of Jackson. Yes, the Z’mann decision worked the night before, but Jax is no Jordan. Other than that, I can’t think of anything I’d have done differently.

    Certainly, Drew Storen had a bad night, and my heart aches for the kid. I, too, hope he’ll be okay. If I know anything about his nature, he’ll overanalyze, but come back aggressive next season.

    But if I have to assign blame, I point my finger straight at Gio Gonzalez. When the team’s ace has a 6-0 lead after three innings in a crucial game, he is supposed to relax and attack. Gio did neither. With the lead he was given, I wanted seven quality innings from him, if not more, but he barely made it through five. I also believe that his obvious nervousness, even with a 6-run lead, was the catalyst for the Cardinals’ continuing confidence of victory (as they gleefully and arrogantly remarked after the game) and for the Nationals’ continuing fear of losing throughout the game. Confidence is infectious, and so is anxiety, and Gio’s clear anxiety spread to his teammates after the 4th inning like a virus. The Nats’ bats fell silent, and the team kept leaking runs. This is in stark contrast to the night before, when Detwiler’s brazen self-assurance bolstered the Nats even after he left the game. Z’mann, Clip, and Storen were revved up to compete, and I think Detwiler gets a lot of credit for that.

    Even worse than his in-game performance, though, Gio’s postgame quote (where he said that he did his job, because he exited the game with a lead) really worried me. As the ace pitcher of the staff—NL All-Star, Cy Young candidate—with a big lead in the clinching game of a playoff series, his job was substantially more than to just pitch five innings and get pulled after giving up half of his team’s lead. Rizzo made the right call with Strasburg, but if there was one moment in the postseason when I really missed Strasburg, it was during Gio’s postgame interview. Had he pitched as badly as Gio in the 5th inning, Stras would have been deeply and openly disappointed, and he would have blamed himself completely for the eventual loss. He would have flat-out said that he didn’t do his job. I was very disappointed in Gio for that.

    Now that my rant is finished, I hope you gentlemen will point out where I’m being too harsh, but I really needed to get that off my chest.


    31 Oct 12 at 2:33 pm

  4. Wait, one last thing. From a purely tactical standpoint, and with hindsight being 20/20, there is one other decision of Davey’s that I would have done differently: I’d have walked Kozma in the 9th to force the Cards to pinch-hit for Motte. Still, that’s a close call, and I see the other side of it.


    31 Oct 12 at 2:40 pm

  5. When Jackson went in, I immediately said, “well, Zimmermann blew them away last night, Jackson should do the same thing tonight.” Hindsight; Johnson managed the bullpen differently in both games 4 and 5 than he had all season. You have Ryan Mattheus and (as of Sept 1 anyway) Christain Garcia EXACTLY for this situation; big time arm out of the pen to pitch the 7th and get the game to Clippard and Storen.

    My dad pointed out a very good point; Storen’s over use in the 3 games in Washington leading perhaps to his being tired and thus wild in game 5. Storen pitched a useless outing in the game 3 blow out for reasons unknown. He was sharp as hell in game 4 … and then completely wild in game 5.

    A 6 run lead at any point in a major league game is usually enough to win it. The nats record when scoring 6 or more runs on the season was fantastic (I would quote the exact amount but the page is down on right now). I wasn’t surprised the team didn’t score more runs after getting the first 6. When we got the 7th run in the 8th inning I thought the game was done.

    Can’t disagree about Gio; even with a 6 run lead he looked scared on the mound. Inarguably. Saw it at the time and the Cardinals players have been qu oted as saying the same thing. You need to depend on your Vets for guidance there. Werth, DeRosa, Jackson; the only 3 guys on the team that had gone through it before. Gio should have lost game 1, and should have given the team at least a quality start (6 innings) in game 5. This is the essence of the “See, you would have won with Strasburg” arguments. Arguing that Strasburg wouldn’t have given up those runs in game 5. I don’t buy the argument, but that’s what the pundits say.

    Todd Boss

    31 Oct 12 at 3:46 pm

  6. Don’t misunderstand, I’m in no way arguing that Strasburg wouldn’t have melted down in Game 5 exactly as Gio did. His last ten starts were no better than mediocre, so he might have been rocked, too (although I will say that I truly can’t imagine him looking as scared as Gio did on the mound). My point is that if Strasburg HAD melted down like Gio did, he would have singled himself out for the majority of the blame for the eventual loss. Accountability is in his nature. Not the case with Gio, apparently, who said “I did my job.” No, Gio, you didn’t.


    31 Oct 12 at 3:54 pm

  7. I must admit, I did not see/hear that Gio interview/quote. You are right; you’d expect more out of a staff leader and veteran guy.

    Lets hope that its just a case of first-time playoff jitters for the whole team. Zimmerman and Desmond were really the only guys to hit effectively for the series; Espinosa disappeared as expected, Harper and LaRoche struggled, and Werth/Morse were poor. Can’t win if you can’t hit. The pitching staff, which lead the league in ERA with 3.34, had a 6.14 era in the playoffs. Frankly they’re lucky to have stretched the series to a 5th game.

    Todd Boss

    1 Nov 12 at 11:25 am

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