For all the winning they have enjoyed since 2012, the Washington Nationals entered October with just two postseason victories.
They are still very much neophytes at this playoff-baseball thing, especially as it concerns coming out ahead. With their loss Friday in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, the Nats had twice as many postseason defeats as wins.
They fell even further below the .500 mark on Saturday, in historic, frustrating and excruciating fashion. The San Francisco Giants’ 2-1 victory in 18 innings – MLB’s longest postseason game in terms of time (six hours and 23 minutes) – was another painful postseason lesson for the Nats.
They are learning that experience can be a cruel teacher and substitutes are not allowed.
At least Washington is being schooled by the best, San Francisco this year and St. Louis in 2012. Thanks to Brandon Belt’s solo homer leading off the 18th inning, the Giants won their 10th consecutive playoff game. But they did so in atypical fashion, failing time and again to capitalize on opportunities in extra innings and beat the Nats with fundamentals.
Yet, the Giants prevailed, which is all that matters this time of year.
Winning a lot during the regular season and being close to winning or tying a series, matters not at all.
However, the cusp of victory has become an unwelcome pattern for the home team. The Nats were one pitch away from knotting the NLDS against the Giants, just like they were one pitch away from advancing to the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals.
The goat in both instances was Drew Storen, who faced only two Giants batters in wasting a sterling outing by Jordan Zimmermann.
Or the goat could be manager Matt Williams, who went to the bullpen with two outs in the eighth inning because Zimmermann issued a walk after retiring the previous 17 batters. “He wasn’t going to face (Buster) Posey,” Williams said of his decision, reminding all that the Giants catcher scorched a liner to third in his previous at-bat. “He saw the ball pretty good off him all night long. We decided to go with the closer.”
When Storen failed to seal the deal, he resurrected thoughts of the nightmarish ending in 2012 when Washington coughed up a six-run lead and he blew a two-run lead in the ninth. Those images raced the minds of 44,035 fans in attendance. Did he have a flashback, too?
“Absolutely not,” Storen said in the Nats’ somber clubhouse. “I made quality pitches and they fell in.”
Every inning at Nationals Park was pure agony Saturday after Storen yielded a single to Posey and an RBI-double to Pablo Sandoval. It was nearly a two-run, go-ahead double on a bang-bang play at the plate, but instant replay confirmed that Wilson Ramos tagged out Posey on the Bryce Harper-to-Ian Desmond relay.
From that moment, as the temperature dropped into the low 50s, everyone who remained knew the Nats were in the midst of another lesson.
Grades are based on the final score, so the Nats failed their test, again, while the Giants passed theirs, again.
“I can’t put my finger on it,” Posey said. “It’s hard to explain, but the postseason is a bit different. But we were on the flip side two years ago, so we have to keep it up.”
That history should be at the forefront of the Nats’ minds once they settle in at San Francisco. The Giants lost the first two games – at home – in the 2012 Division Series against Cincinnati, but rallied to advance and eventually win the World Series.
Naturally, the Nats put up a brave front as they stared at an 0-2 deficit.
“This situation gives us the chance to do something special,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “We’re in position to go to their house and take two from them.
It would be great if the Nats could add to the lessons they’ve mastered over the past three seasons. They have won close games in the NLDS (3-2 and 2-1 against St. Louis) and lost close games (identical scores against San Francisco). They also have absorbed blowout losses, bludgeoned by a combined score of 20-4 in Games 2 and 3 against St. Louis.
The only thing missing is a laugher of their own.
It was clear that Saturday night wouldn’t qualify as Zimmermann and the Giants’ Tim Hudson kept the opposing lineups from doing much damage. But after Asdrubal Cabrera doubled in the third inning and Anthony Rendon drove him home, it appeared as if Zimmermann would make the lone run stand up.
He almost did and the Nats almost won.
Learning to get over the hump is taking longer than desired.
From the look of things, class will have to be continued next season.