The victors get to write history.
The vanquished get to lament it.
The Washington Nationals, arguably baseball’s best team this season, begin their winter vacation much earlier than they expected, much sooner than predicted.
Instead of advancing to the National League Championship Series to settle a two-year-old score with the St. Louis Cardinals, the Nats are left to ponder what happened at Nationals Park and AT&T Park over the course of three losses in five days.
They will look back on their blown opportunities and untimely miscues. They will reflect on their failure to execute in critical situations. They will recall their inability to produce when production was a must.
They will rewind key moments of Games 1, 2 and 4 – the crucial at-bats, pressure-packed pitches and split-second fielding plays – and they will wince.
What they could have done will provide no solace. What they would have done will offer no relief. What they should have done will ease no pain.
They will keep coming back to what they actually did, losing the National League Division Series for the second time in three seasons. And they will hurt all over again.
There is no shame in dropping three, one-run games in the NLDS against a San Francisco team with championship DNA. But that does not make defeat sting any less.
“I told them I’m proud of their effort,” manager Matt Williams said in the interview session after the Giants’ 3-2 victory ended Washington’s season Tuesday night. “We established a way to go about this game in spring training and we accomplished that goal. We played the way we wanted to play and did a lot of things right.
“So, you know, it’s tender and it’s bitter and all of those things, but I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the way they went about it.”
Williams had a fine season as a rookie skipper and he should garner many votes for NL Manager of the Year. He was no stranger to postseason baseball during his 17-year playing career, especially toward the end. He reached the playoffs four times between 1997-2003 and participated in the World Series with Arizona and Cleveland.
His counterpart, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy, didn’t have nearly the same playing career, lasting just nine seasons and reaching the playoffs twice. But Bochy is in his 20th season as a skipper, with three pennants and two World Series titles on his resume.
To say the Giants had an advantage in the dugout is stating the obvious. Bochy has first-hand knowledge about the required shift in mentality once the regular season ends and the postseason begins.
That’s a lesson that Williams just learned the hard way.
The key stretch in Game 4 came in the bottom of the seventh, after Bryce Harper tied the game on a monstrous, solo homer. Williams brought in left-handed reliever Matt Thornton to face the top of the order, left-handed batters Gregor Blanco and Joe Panik.
A by-the-book move. And then logic flew out the window.
Williams left Thornton in to face right-handed batter Buster Posey with Panik on first and one out. Single. Compounding his bad judgment, Williams called on rookie right-hander Aaron Barrett instead of right-handed relief ace Tyler Clippard (who wasn’t ready and never entered the game). Barrett walked Hunter Pence and then yielded the go-ahead run on a wild pitch.
“That’s how we set this up,” Williams said afterward in explaining his relief choices. “We had two lefties at the top of the inning, and if we got to the righties, we were going to go with Barrett. That’s what he’s done for us all year long. We are certainly not going to use our closer in the seventh inning. So that’s why we went with it.”
But the way things are done all year don’t matter in October, especially when “all year” can end that night. Williams acknowledged as much in discussing starter Gio Gonzalez, who was removed for a pinch-hitter in the top of the fifth: “In a normal game and not an elimination game, he may still be in that game,” Williams said.
Well, in a normal game Barrett may get the ball. But it should have been Clippard in a win-or-go-home game. If Clippard gives up the lead, so be it. But there’s no excuse for not warming up your best reliever and inserting him at that key juncture.
Williams’ handling of the bullpen in Game 4 is just one “what might have-been” that will plague the Nats’ during the winter.
There are plenty of others, adding up to initials like NLCS and WS.
But the Nats and their skipper will be back next year, presumably better and wiser, definitely more experienced.
Until then, it’s losers’ lament, an all-too-familiar refrain in these parts.