Improbabilities and Impossibilities
by Noah Frank
“We would accomplish many more things if we did not think of them as impossible.” – Vince Lombardi
It is not impossible for the Nationals to make it to the postseason this year. The strange twists and turns of this season have left them looking up a steep hill, at tall odds stacked heavily against them. And while not impossible, the chance of them crashing the party remains highly improbable. Which is to say that they will need a number of improbabilities to swing their way, in succession, to defy those odds.
They got off to a good start on Tuesday.
Facing the prospects of a crushing loss in the opening game of the twinbill against the Braves, the Nationals did something no team has done in Craig Kimbrel’s 225 career appearances, scoring the three runs they needed to erase a two-run deficit to walk off with a 6-5 win. The Baseball Reference win probability chart had the Nats at eight percent to win in such a scenario entering the bottom of the ninth.
The comeback was made even more amazing, and the result even more unlikely than the probabilities suggest, considering that Washington had yet to score against the Atlanta closer his 10 prior appearances against them this season. He had converted 37 straight save opportunities, a string that was going to end as soon as the ball left Denard Span’s bat, as his one-out grounder was going to be deep enough to score the tying run. But as Andrelton Simmons – the highest-rated defensive shortstop in baseball – pulled his glove up, the ball skipping untouched through his legs, the Nationals found themselves celebrating an even more unbelievable victory.
The long odds didn’t end in game one, though. After Tanner Roark, perhaps the unlikeliest figure in this late season charge, delivered seven scoreless frames in the nightcap, Washington clung to a 1-0 lead heading to the bottom of the eighth. The Braves turned to Jordan Walden, who had allowed just one run in eight prior appearances against the Nats, coming on a solo shot by Ryan Zimmerman. The Z-Man took an encore roundtripper to double the lead, then Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche combined to plate two more runs as the Nationals put the game away.
Against the two relievers who had dominated them the most this season, the Nationals suddenly broke through for three runs apiece. Coming in, Walden and Kimbrel had combined to go 2-0 with a 0.50 ERA (1 ER/18.0 IP), four walks, 22 strikeouts and a perfect 7-for-7 in save chances in the season series. On Tuesday, they were 0-1 with a 22.50 ERA (5 ER/2.0 IP), with two walks, no strikeouts and a blown save.
While Washington has no realistic chance to catch Atlanta in the division, the two wins ensured the Braves could not clinch the NL East in Washington this week. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Reds have continued to win in Houston, lowering the Nationals postseason chances to 3.3 percent, according to Baseball Prospectus, heading into play on Wednesday. However, the Pittsburgh Pirates have lost two straight, bringing them back into the picture as well. In order to tie the Reds or Pirates and force a one-game playoff to get to the Wild Card game, the Nationals would need to play out their remaining games with one of the following combinations from their opponents:
While it seems unlikely that teams like Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, clubs which have played well all season, will collapse entirely, any of the top three combinations seem possible. Yes, it would require the Nationals to keep playing at the same rate they have over their last 12 games (in which they are 11-1) against stronger competition, including three games in St. Louis.
These are not probable outcomes. But, then again, after what happened on Tuesday at Nationals Park, we know that improbable does not equal impossible.