by Noah Frank
Take a deep breath, Nationals fans.
It can be easy, when your team’s back is against the wall, playing to keep its season alive, to panic and lose hope. The postseason brings heightened emotions and an extra sense of urgency to every game, so individual wins and losses can seem blown out of proportion. That’s why now is as good a time as ever to remove emotion from the equation for the moment, to step back, and to look at the reality of what lies ahead the next day or two, based on what we’ve learned about the Nationals and Cardinals from the 2012 season.
By the time Major League teams hit the postseason, they have formed an identity. A 162-game regular season lends enough time to form trends and predictable results, a sample size that – while it does not always play out exactly to form – gives the viewing audience an idea of what to expect from a team in the playoffs.
The Cardinals posted a +117 run differential over the course of the regular season, fourth-best in baseball and second in the National League only to Washington’s +137 mark. They went 60-31 in games in games decided by three or more runs, also the second-best mark in the league. This is no doubt a strong indicator of the Cardinals ability to produce prolifically on offense, but it also helps compensate for another, less flattering, team statistic. See, St. Louis went just 28-43 (.394) in games decided by less than three runs, ranking just a hair above Chicago and Houston – two teams that combined to lose 208 games this year – as the worst in the league.
The Nationals had a tendency to win blowouts as well (their 56-26 record in games decided by three or more runs was the best in baseball), but they were also solid in close games, going 42-38 in one and two-run games. Washington also played 20 extra-inning contests, the most in baseball, and were 13-7 in those games (8-5 at home). St. Louis, meanwhile, went just 6-12 in extra-inning affairs.
So far, these trends have largely played out to form through the first three games of the series. The Cardinals have won a pair of blowouts, while the Nationals have taken the lone nail-biter. Postseason experience or not, the large sample seems to indicate that this is the norm, not the exception. And if it is, the Nationals should feel pretty good about themselves, as the head into Thursday (and hopefully Friday) needing wins at home. Especially so, when you consider the following:
Washington Post baseball writer Thomas Boswell pointed out early in the series that all four of last year’s Division Series winners were actually outscored by their opponents in their series. The Rangers (21-16), Tigers (28-17), Brewers (25-23) and yes, Cardinals (21-19) all saw their competition score more runs over the course of their respective series, but all came out on top. Each won at least one one-run game in the series, with three of the teams winning a pair of them. But that 2011 St. Louis team was 45-38 in games decided by two runs or less. They were not the same team that Washington needs to beat twice in the next two days to keep its season alive.
In 4 DS in '11, the winning team was outscored in all of them: 17-28, 19-21, 16-21, 23-25. They lost blow outs, won close games.—
Thomas Boswell (@ThomasBoswellWP) October 08, 2012
The Nationals have been outscored 22-7 through the first three games of this series, and would likely end up on the short end of the overall run total even if they do take the next two games (after all, they’d have to outscore the Cardinals by an average of eight runs a game to tip the overall balance). The good news is, by doing so, they would actually be the norm, not the exception.
When examining the particulars of the matchups in front of the Nationals, it helps to again stay away from the knee-jerk reactions. A quick look at Game 4 starter Kyle Lohse’s numbers (16-3, 2.86 ERA) doesn’t inspire hope. In fact, he posted a 2.62 ERA in 199.1 innings against all the teams in the league that do not call the Nation’s Capital home. But in his two starts against Washington, the Nationals battered him around to the tune of a 6.92 ERA (12 runs, nine earned, in 11.2 innings). He did not take the loss in either, but very well could have, leaving with deficits of 9-8 and 4-0 in the two games.
Coupled with the lineup’s success against Lohse, Ross Detwiler’s 8-2 record and 2.59 ERA at Nationals Park reshape the whole outlook of the matchup. Of course, Game 5 would bring a rematch of Adam Wainwright and Gio Gonzalez, a Game 1 matchup that the Nationals won, 3-2, back on Sunday in St. Louis.
All the Nationals have to do is win two games in a row at home, something they’ve done 23 times this season, including against this same Cardinals squad on August 30-31, just over a month ago.
Nationals fans, allow yourself to exhale – if only until first pitch Thursday afternoon.