baseball, reviews

Game 5: Chaos, as a force for good

I was sitting in temple with my cell phone burning a (metaphorical) hole in my left pant pocket. It was the most solemn day of the year. I was an hour into a set of concluding services. I freely admit that I already have at least one thing to atone for in 5780, because my mind was wandering away from thoughtful reflective prayer; I was into territory like, “how is Strasburg doing, how is Trea doing, has anyone gotten Max Muncy out yet.” Not profane thoughts by any means, but hardly “sacred” by any conventionally accepted definition.

To my great credit, I did not actually check the GameDay app in the sanctuary, nor did I make up a bathroom excuse. I actually waited for the evening service to end and only then did I make a beeline for the social halls, the nearest available areas in which I could politely congregate myself around a little blue screen to either live streaming video or little animated dots.

So, I get outside, I look down, it’s 3-0 Dodgers.

My father is an outstanding poker player and my father-in-law is a savvy investor and trader, so I blame them for the fact that the first question in my mind was not so much emotional, but rather, “down three-to-nothing, in the third inning, what’s our win probability?”

Fangraphs informed me, the Dodgers had an 81 percent chance of winning.

At this point, I had two contradictory reactions.

Analytics Alex said, “there’s just no way.” And the truth is, a 20 percent win probability is terrible. one-in-five, two-in-ten, however you want to spin it–those odds are awful.

Eye-test Alex said, “down three, third inning–ok, that’s 18 outs to work with, a ton of weird stuff can happen in 18 outs, I dunno, why not?”

Weird stuff did happen.

What I am going to put forth is my best analysis as to why what happened last night, happened, from the perspective of a quasi-learned Nats fan.

Individual skill sets have their role. Deployment of those skill sets has a role. Ultimately, as with everything in life, luck has something to do with it, too.

Step 1a. Controlling the deficit. I came up with this phrase late last night as I was trying to piece together for myself why the Nats ultimately won. It sounds fancier and more academic than “damage control,” or “stop the bleeding.” I feel smarter when I say “control the deficit.” It seems Joe Maddony. So I’m going with it.

What I mean is this. Stephen Strasburg got off to a rough start. Three runs in two innings via a double and two homers. Mathematically speaking, this all-but buried the Nats.

The first, most valuable thing Strasburg did, was that he didn’t give up another run after the first three. Even an additional tack-on run from Los Angeles would have made tying the game that much harder (and we all know what happened after the tie.)

Strasburg went into shut-down mode after that initial burst of Dodger activity. As the Nats lineup turned over, the top hitters got more at-bats, more exposure to an elite-premium pitcher in Walker Buehler, and were able to claw together a single run. Which made tying the game easier–and also contributed to exhausting Buehler.

Had the Strasburg dam totally collapsed, no rally would have mattered. Stras bent, but he never broke. This, to me, is the single biggest element that saved the game. It gave us the foundation for having a shot.

Step 1b. An acknowledgment of the extraordinary effort of Walker Buehler. He’s so good. He sits there spinning high-90s heat, he mixes a variety of evaporating breaking balls–it’s ridiculous. L.A. let him throw 117 pitches. This is not a condemnation of Dodger strategy. Just the opposite; I firmly believe, in the playoffs, you ride the hell out of the horses that got you there. I think the 117-pitch number just shows how much of a “max,” or “empty-the-tank” performance it took from Buehler, how brilliant he was and had to be, against an obviously premium opponent.

Did he come away with defeat? Yes.

Does that suck? Yes. It obviously sucks.

Was he amazing? Yes. I am so impressed with his both stuff and his disposition.

Step 2a. The lineup, line-up’d. The Nats didn’t plate runs but that’s not to say the team didn’t move the ball around. Every inning, you could feel the Nats getting closer and closer to an actual rally. You could feel the bats getting a feel for Buehler’s offerings, and eventually, an Anthony Rendon double and Juan Soto single got the Nats on board.

The very act of turning a lineup over is known to correlate with more winning, because it correlates with scoring. So, every single positive act against Buehler, while Strasburg kept the game close, meant not only that the Nats were never out of “striking distance,” and were actually getting closer to it.

The lineup didn’t produce a lot, but it was never totally dead, either, and that paid off.

Step 2b. Having Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto in the middle of your lineup is helpful. Their technique, their strike zone knowledge, their discipline, their ability to foul off and extend at-bats–they do everything up there. (Also, in the field, Anthony’s defense is known to be elite, and Juan’s defense is underrated.)

Step 2c. Trea Turner remains one of the five most underrated players in baseball.

Step 2d. How is that Michael Taylor can scuffle so badly in the regular season, and then show up and hit a few key singles here and there, and play premium outfield defense? Amazing!

Step 3a. Relief pitching eats sanity, part 1. By the numbers, the 2019 Nationals are known to have among the worst bullpens in modern baseball history. It’s incredible this team is in the playoffs at all, given some of the late lead-blowing performances I had the “fortune” to witness this year.

Everyone has a bad bullpen, it seems like, but the Nats bullpen mostly lived on the saddest end of badness.

Pat Corbin is a textbook example of why relief pitching is where thinking goes to die. Normally, Pat starts and throws six or seven innings of highly effective baseball.

In Game 5, he and Tanner Rainey tag-teamed one-and-a-third innings of brilliant baseball out of the bullpen, picking up where Stras left off. Rainey and Corbin continued holding the Dodgers scoreless, which, in turn, helped retain our ability to get back into the game.

Rainey eliminated some righties, and then Corbin came in.

Now, Corbin had pitched out of the bullpen in Game 4, too, and the results had been a catastrophic implosion. Six earned runs, four hits, two walks–as I said, it was a sad night for him.

So, here he comes, Game 5–I’m sitting there laughing like the fucking Joker, because why not? What else is there to do? Pat Corbin had an amazing year as a starter. He, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are, by WAR, three of our top five most valuable players. So, okay, Pat Corbin, once more out of the bullpen, fuck it.

He gets three strikeouts.

Whee!! Relief pitching is great!!!!

Then comes The Rally. Then comes The Win.

Step 3b. Relief pitching eats sanity, part 2, the Kershaw edition. There’s really no getting around this subject and I hate it. I hate it because I have so much respect for Clayton Kershaw, and so little respect for people who use terms like “Ker-choke” or other lazy-ass, garbage, thinking-replacement memes. He’s not the first guy to struggle in the playoffs and he certainly won’t be the last. But I have a lot more issue with how he was deployed, than what he did.

Dave Roberts piggy-backing Kershaw was an awful, stupid idea, for a host of reasons.

First, the Nationals had accomplished almost nothing against Kenta Maeda, from either side of the plate. There was no reason not to just throw Maeda.

Kersh had gotten one out already, the lefty, Adam Eaton. Fine! Use him as the “LOOGY,” and move on. There was absolutely no reason at all to try and squeeze another inning out of Kershaw in that situation, other than to say you’re doing it.

The Dodgers bullpen isn’t “good,” but it’s certainly better than the Nationals bullpen, at least on paper. If you can’t trust Kenley Jansen to get a 5-out save, or something like that, in that moment, why is he on the team? Plus there was that guy Adam Kolarek, who had wiped out Juan Soto.

Clayton Kershaw 2019 is not Clayton Kershaw 2016, who was essentially unhittable, who did come in from the bullpen and wipe out my Nationals, and that’s what Kershaw used to do. But he’s not that guy anymore. He’s very good; he can wipe out guys with finesse stuff, but he won’t overpower anyone, and he certainly won’t “overpower” either Rendon or Soto.

Even if this strategy had worked, it would have been a terrible one.

Anyhow, Kershaw is getting nuked as a choke artist, and that makes me sick. I won’t have it. He’s a total “mensch,” an absolute stand-up guy and an obvious Hall of Famer. He was not well-served by being deployed as a piggy-back starter.

Just because it can be done doesn’t mean it’s necessary. In the Nats case, it was much more necessary to use Corbin this way, because there’s only one other lefty in the bullpen–Sean Doolittle, who is essentially the No. 1b closer.

Breaking Corbin out as a reliever was a necessity for us.

Not so for Los Angeles.

Step 4. Stay in the fight. I am certain that, by WAR and by statcast analysis, the Dodgers were the superior team. I am also certain that baseball has yet to find a metric for teams that “stay in the fight.” I am not saying the Dodgers are not “mentally tough,” I am merely saying that I have never ever rooted for a team as mentally tough, as absolutely determined to yield no quarter, as this Nats club.

I don’t think it’s a talent. I don’t think anyone is naturally equipped to love sucking at stuff. I think “staying in the fight” can be taught, though. And how? By enduring the uphill hardship.

Watching this team survive a 19-31 cataclysm and become THIS THING has been one of the most amazing storyline “arcs” of my recent lifetime.

Stay in the fight, folks.

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