Its Groundhog Day again for the Washington Nationals and their fans.
For the fourth time.
The experience of being a Nationals fan over the past decade has had its share of highs and lows. The franchise was the worst in the sport during the Nationals’ first five seasons in D.C., and fans have become used to being a laughingstock and a punchline for media pundits. Since those tough early seasons, the team has dominated the regular season and claimed four National League Eastern division titles in the last six seasons—a great accomplishment.
But each time the Nationals foray into the playoffs, the season ends with a bitter defeat. This year was no different.
Losing to the defending world champion Chicago Cubs in five games isn’t something to be embarrassed about. But the Nationals’ continued inability to win critical games at home in the first round of the playoffs shows something is missing.
What’s missing is a sense of urgency and grit that all great teams tend to show when it matters. Since the 2014 NLDS against the San Francisco Giants, the Nationals have lost nine playoff games total. Of those nine defeats, eight have been lost by one run. The lone exception was Game One against the Cubs last week, in which Stephen Strasburg took a no-hitter through 5-1/3 innings and the Nationals fell 3-0 only because of Anthony Rendon’s error. Losing this many close games does nothing for the fan base—a group which already seems uninspired by the team’s prosperity—but it says a lot about the franchise as a whole.
More than any of the four major sports, baseball becomes almost a totally different game in the postseason. The rules and calm that teams have to adhere to during the 162-game grind of the regular season is all but thrown out the window. There is no time to hope a player gets out of a slump, a la Jayson Werth and Matt Wieters in the first four games of this past series. You can’t wait four games before you decide to shake up a lineup, especially in the five-game Divisional Series.
Instead, you have to play situational baseball. Teams have to find ways to manufacture runs, and advance baserunners whenever possible, assuming that runners on the basepaths will be scarce.
You also have to do all of the little things that are always overlooked but will come back to bite you when least expected. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras loves to throw the ball back to first base to try to catch runners slipping, so you cannot allow yourself to be caught, as Nationals catcher Jose Lobaton did in the eighth inning of Game Five. You cannot let someone like Jon Lester, who is notoriously terrible at holding runners at first base, pick you off as Ryan Zimmerman did. You cannot throw the ball to the wrong base, as Trea Turner did with only one out, allowing the Cubs to pick up two-out hit after two-out hit. You cannot allow passed balls when your team’s momentum is slipping away as the aforementioned Wieters did.
The small things, also known as “Baseball IQ,” seems to be missing from the Nationals. There needs to be a leader, whether on the roster or as the manager, that demands it 100 percent of the time. The overwhelming talent of this roster means that their attention to these details isn’t really tested during the regular season as it is in a five-game series. Pressure bursts pipes, and each postseason, Washington’s mental and physical errors cost the team dearly.
The Nationals’ baseball fundamentals needs to be improved, and novel strategies developed, if this franchise wants to be anything more than a great regular season team that implodes every year.