Oct 06

In a game of inches, Nationals coming up short all around

We’ve all heard that baseball is a game of inches. It’s a seemingly small measurement that can make the difference between a ball and a strike, a hit and an out or even a win and a loss.

Such measurements are also apparently important to San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Hudson, who questioned the Nationals’ collective manhood before the start of the National League Division Series, suggesting that the Nats might not have the fortitude to win in the postseason. Rather than proving him wrong, though, the Nats have, so far, come up short – just short – in almost every aspect of the game.

The stats for the first two games of the best-of-five series show the Nationals and Giants are separated by just two runs, .33 points of earned run average and .053 points of batting average. Those small details, often accounted for by inches, add up to a huge difference. The Nats trail 2-0, and face elimination Monday night in San Francisco.

It’s hard not to like Washington’s 1.33 team ERA in the first two games. Stephen Strasburg allowed just one earned run in five innings in Game 1. In many of the games Strasburg lost this season, such a performance would have made him a winner. However, Jake Peavey was just a bit better, shutting out the Nats for 5 2/3 innings in a 3-2 win for the Giants.

Jordan Zimmerman was brilliant for 8 2/3 innings in Game 2, holding the Giants scoreless on three hits. He was pulled from the game after walking Joe Panik, on two pitches that may – or may not – have been inches off the strike zone. Drew Storen did not measure up in his relief role. Two pitches that were poorly located by inches went for a single by Posey and an RBI double by Pablo Sandoval. A fine throw to the plate and tag by Wilson Ramos nailed Posey, representing the go-ahead run, by less than an inch.

In the 18th inning, Brandon Belt launched Tanner Roark’s fastball, up in the strike zone by a few inches, into the second deck in right field for the game-winning homer. San Francisco’s Yusmerio Petit was just a bit better than Roark and the rest Nationals’ bullpen, throwing six innings of one-hit shutout ball to earn the win.

But the area where the Nats have been the most insufficient has been at the plate. While Washington pitching has held the San Francisco batters to an anemic .213/.260/.298 line in the first two games, that’s still just a bit better than the Nats’ abysmal .160/.225/.245.

It starts with the leadoff man. Denard Span is 0-for-11 with one walk. He also hit into a rally-killing double play in the 10th inning of game 2 after Ryan Zimmerman had the first of the Nats two bases hits in extra innings. His counterpart, Gregor Blanco, at least has a hit to go with one walk and a .100/.183/.100 line. In a matchup between two guys having terrible series, Span comes up a bit short.

There are plenty of other .100 batting averages, all belonging to the heart of the Nats’ order: Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Wilson Ramos. These were earned, for the most part, while flailing for the fences and against the wind, and all too often on the first pitch, in the extra innings of Saturday’s marathon. When they weren’t striking out, they were launching fly balls to the warning track for easy outs. What about the Giants 3-4-5 hitters? Posey is hitting .400/.500./400, Sandoval is .167/.167/.250 and Hunter Pence is .273/.273/.364.

Maturity is another measure of manhood, and the Nats aren’t showing well in that department, either. Asdrubal Cabrera (.250/.250/.750), the only regular player besides Anthony Rendon batting above .200, got himself kicked out in the tenth inning of Game 2 for arguing balls and strikes.

It’s possible that the pitches called strikes against him were similar to the ones called balls in the top of the ninth when Zimmermann walked Panik. It’s probable that this was frustrating for Cabrera and manager Matt Williams, who also argued and was ejected immediately after Cabrera. It’s inexcusable, though, for a player to lose his cool in a postseason game. The result was that Danny Espinosa, also hitless in the series, had to play the final nine innings, all batting left-handed, the weakest side for the switch-hitting second baseman.

We will never know whether Hudson’s jabs got inside the Nats’ heads. Clearly, though, they have not yet shown they have what it takes to win in the postseason, in any phase of the game. Whether it’s talent, fortitude or both, the Giants have come up with just enough more than the Nats to force an elimination game.

From now on, good is not enough; the Nats must be great. Where they’ve come up just short, the Nats must excel. Where they’ve failed, the Nats must succeed. There is no more room for error –not even an inch.