Quick Links

Nats survive their first postseason experience

908673.png

Nats survive their first postseason experience

ST. LOUIS -- Twenty-one of the 25 players on their roster had never experienced this before. Neither had approximately 99 percent of their fan base back home in Washington.

Jayson Werth, though, had been here. He's been through the meat grinder of the postseason, and he knows what kind of toll it can take on teams and players who are entering uncharted territory.

"A lot of times you see teams in their first games, the first time they're there, and they crack or buckle," the veteran right fielder said. "I feel like we definitely gave a little bit, but we didn't break."

Oh, the Nationals gave plenty to the Cardinals Sunday afternoon in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. If not for the giant scoreboard in center field at Busch Stadium, a casual observer might well have thought they were trailing by a touchdown in the top of the eighth inning, not by a single run.

This, though, is what postseason baseball is all about. It's a roller-coaster of emotions. One minute you're sky-high, the next you're cursing yourself after a squandered opportunity.

The postseason is about hitting in the clutch, making big pitches with runners in scoring position and coming up big in the field with everything on the line.

For seven innings, the Nationals failed in just about every manner possible. And then they flipped a switch and thrived in all three facets, escaping with a 3-2 victory that felt like the most important victory in team history.

Which, of course, it was. After a 98-win season, the NL East title and all sorts of new-found attention for a franchise that had never even spent a day on the fringes of the spotlight, the Nationals entered this series with a bullseye squarely on their chests.

Forced to open on the road against the defending World Series champs, they suddenly found themselves facing real pressure for one of the first times in their charmed season. And -- despite everything their manager and they insisted in the days leading up to it -- they played like a team that was caught up in the moment.

Gio Gonzalez couldn't find the strike zone. Werth couldn't drive in a run. Danny Espinosa couldn't make contact. Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche couldn't make routine plays. Craig Stammen couldn't avoid plunking opposing batters.

Yet in spite of themselves, the Nationals trailed most of the afternoon by only one run, 2-1, with those two runs scoring entirely as a result of Gonzalez's extreme wildness.

There were plenty of opportunities where the deficit could have grown. Gonzalez himself managed to keep the damage to a relative minimum, escaping his 37-pitch nightmare of a second inning only allowing those two runs.

"I think that was a big positive," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "Instead of down, say, 5-1, we're down 2-1. We're still in the ballgame. That was a big, big job by Gio."

Which set the stage for some really big jobs performed by a Nationals bullpen that combined to throw four scoreless innings and strand five Cardinals in scoring position.

No one, of course, performed better than Ryan Mattheus, who entered facing the ultimate jam -- bases loaded, nobody out -- and somehow managed to record three outs on all of two pitches. The right-hander walked off the mound with a roar, one of several displays of emotion from Nationals players during the final, frenzied innings of this game.

"Yeah, there was definitely some emotion," Mattheus said. "That's the biggest game I've been in. Those are the biggest three outs and the two biggest pitches I've ever made. So being down one run, I wanted to pump the team up and hopefully get some momentum back in our direction."

The pendulum immediately swung back in the Nationals' favor. Their game-winning rally began with a break: shortstop Pete Kozma taking a bad hop grounder off his face (reminiscent of the Yankees' Tony Kubek late in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series) to allow Michael Morse to reach first base.

Ian Desmond, one of the few young Nationals who looked composed from the first pitch, followed with his third single of the day, but he and Morse were able to advance only one base a piece after Espinosa's surprising sacrifice bunt and Suzuki's strikeout.

With two outs now, the tying run on third and the winning run on second, Johnson sent his best pinch-hitter to the plate: Chad Tracy. The 69-year-old skipper, though, knew Tracy would never actually get into the batter's box. Sure enough, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny signaled for his bullpen, summoning his lone left-hander (Marc Rzepczynski) to face Tracy.

Johnson immediately countered, pulling Tracy back and sending to the plate 25-year-old rookie Tyler Moore, whose lack of experience is overshadowed by his ability to hit the baseball like a true pro.

"I'd rather have the veteran player in that situation than a rookie," Johnson said. "But rookies have been doing a heck of a job, and Moore has got some big hits for us, as he did tonight."

That he did. After flailing at a 2-1 pitch way out of the zone, Moore composed himself and dumped the biggest hit of his life into shallow right field. Morse and Desmond came around to score, Moore celebrated as he advanced to second base and the Nationals dugout went bezerk.

"To battle with two strikes and throw one out there in a huge situation, he picked us up," LaRoche said. "A bunch of us had opportunities today to drive some runs in and it didn't happen, so he saved all of us."

That, though, is what great teams do. That's what successful teams in October do.

Sometimes the star players deliver in the biggest spots. Sometimes it's a 28-year-old middle reliever and a 25-year-old rookie off the bench.

"That's playoff baseball," said Drew Storen, who earned the save with a 1-2-3 ninth. "Nothing goes to plan in the playoffs. The good teams are the ones that can handle it and really grind it out and get the victory. That's what we expect. We don't expect it to go by the book."

No, very little about this game went by the book. And it's entirely possible very little about the rest of this playoff run will, either.

That's just the way this works. In the regular season, a 3-2 game is completed in less than three hours and features maybe one or two moments of mild pressure. In the postseason, it takes a full 3 hours and 40 minutes, a never-ending stream of big and bigger moments where it feels like everything is on the line.

And when it's all over, everybody heads back to their team hotel, tries to get their blood pressure back to normal levels, tries to get something resembling a good night's sleep ... and comes right back to the park the next day ready for another date with the meat grinder.

Game 1 is in the books. The Nationals and their fans could experience this 18 more times before the season ends.

Hope everyone packed their beta-blockers.

Quick Links

Papelbon blows it in 9th as Nats fall to Padres, lose series

Papelbon blows it in 9th as Nats fall to Padres, lose series

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 10-6 loss to the San Diego Padres on Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park.

How it happened: There are certain points in an MLB season where the magnifying glass comes over each roster, when singular performances can be honed in on and cast as part of a bigger picture, despite them occurring in the vast sea of a 162-game season.

The month of July, trade deadline season, is one of those times and on Sunday afternoon the first poor outing for Jonathan Papelbon in over a month just happened to occur amidst trade rumors involving the Nats and other closers around the league. If they were already inclined to seek help for the backend of their bullpen, Papelbon didn't do his part to change their mind in this one.

The right-hander hadn't allowed a run since June 12 with seven straight scoreless appearances since he returned from the disabled list on July 4. Against the Padres, though, he found trouble early with a four-pitch walk against Wil Myers with one out. Myers moved to second on a wild pitch and then scored on a Yangervis Solarte single. Papelbon allowed three more runs on a bases-clearing double by Alexei Ramirez to make it 10-6.

Papelbon's uneven ninth followed a rocky eighth inning by Shawn Kelley, who allowed two solo homers, the second to tie the game at 6-6. It was a rare collapse for the Nats bullpen, who followed a rough afternoon for starter Lucas Giolito. Giolito made it only 3 2/3 innings with four runs allowed, two of them earned.

Wilson Ramos hit his 14th homer of the season, Daniel Murphy drove in two runs and posted his 40th multi-hit game of the season. Trea Turner had two hits including a triple. Jayson Werth added a sacrifice fly and a walk to extend his streak of reaching base to 28 games, the second-longest of his career. And Giolito got his first career MLB hit, a single in the bottom of the third.

It was a solid day for the Nats' offense, but Papelbon's ninth made the difference.

What it means: The Nats fell to 58-41 on the season and lost 2016 series against the Padres 3-4. 

Giolito struggles again: The talent is there, but Giolito remains a work in progress. He ditched his full windup on Sunday to pitch out of the stretch and his velocity remained down. The uber prospect who threw a fastball that flirted with 100 is now consistently tossing 92-95. He's also ditching his changeup. Giolito only threw four of them among his 66 total pitches on Sunday.

Giolito was yanked after 3 2/3 innings with four runs allowed, two of them earned. He didn't strike out a single batter and walked three. Giolito has now allowed six earned runs in 11 1/3 MLB innings with nine walks. 

Three of the runs Giolito surrendered were on one play in the top of the third. Myers singled to center field with the bases loaded to score two, and another came home on a throw to second by Ramos. 

Ramos hits No. 14: And we thought Bryce Harper's 451-foot homer on Wednesday night was a bomb. Ramos clubbed a 455-foot, three-run homer off lefty Christian Friedrich in the bottom of the third that nearly made it to the concourse. Ramos' sailed the no-doubter just four rows away from clearing the bleachers in left field. According to StatCast, the ball left his bat at 110 miles per hour. It was the longest homer hit by a Nationals player this season.

For Ramos, it was his 14th home run of the season. He is now just two away from tying the career-high of 16 he set back in 2013. Only one MLB catcher - Evan Gattis of the Astros - has more than Ramos this season.

Turner triples again: Turner's triple was his third in his last five games. It was a standup triple and it led off the bottom of the first. Turner then scored on Murphy's sacrifice fly. Turner's three triples in 10 games this season rank third on the Nats behind Murphy (4) and Ben Revere (5). At this rate he'll pass those guys very soon.

Up next: The Nats take Monday off before embarking on a long road trip beginning Tuesday in Cleveland. Gio Gonzalez (6-8, 4.53) will start the opener opposite Indians right-hander Danny Salazar (11-3, 2.75).

Quick Links

Nats RHP Barrett suffers major setback in recovery from Tommy John

Nats RHP Barrett suffers major setback in recovery from Tommy John

Nationals reliever Aaron Barrett has suffered a significant setback in his recovery from Tommy John surgery.

While rehabbing in Viera, Fla. on Friday, Barrett broke his right elbow. He will now see Dr. James Andrews on Monday to have his elbow fracture repaired and his ulnar collateral ligament examined.

Barrett had his UCL repaired last September by Andrews. He is eight months into the recovery, which generally takes 12 to 18 months. Barrett had at one point expressed hope of returning to the Nationals bullpen this September, but that is now in question.

Barrett also had bone chips removed from his elbow in September. And this past winter he had bone chips removed from his ankle. It has been a tough year for the right-hander, who broke onto the scene as a rookie in 2014.

Barrett, 28, has pitched in 90 total games for the Nationals. He posted a 2.66 ERA in 50 games in 2014. In 2015, Barrett held a 4.60 ERA through 40 outings.

The Nationals announced Barrett's elbow fracture on Sunday afternoon.

[RELATED: Nats' Ryan Zimmerman: 'I think I'm good to go']

SCROLL DOWN FOR MORE NATIONALS STORIES

Quick Links

Drew Storen designated for assignment by Toronto

Drew Storen designated for assignment by Toronto

Former Washington Nationals pitcher Drew Storen has been designated for assignment by the Toronto Blue Jays, thus likely ending his brief tenure with the team.

Storen was traded to Toronto by the Nationals in excahnge for outfielder Ben Revere in January. He has struggled this season with a 6.21 ERA in 33.1 innings pitched.

The right-handed reliever was a reliable pitcher for Washington, but his career with the Nationals was marred by the ninth inning collapse against the St. Loius Cardinals in the 2012 playoffs. Handed a two-run lead in the ninth inning, Storen came within one strike of the win. Instead, he blew the save giving up four runs.

Storen eventually recovered, but Mike Rizzo's faith in him never did. In 2015, the Nationals traded for Jonathan Papelbon despite a strong season by Storen as closer.

Now perhaps the same thing could be playing out this year for Papelbon as the Nationals target New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman.

RELATED: How Dusty's holy water helped Revere vs. Padres