Archive for the ‘ Author – Noah Frank ’ Category

Getting to Know Matt Williams

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by Noah Frank

When the Nationals arrived in Phoenix at the end of September for their final series of the 2013 season, already mathematically eliminated from postseason contention, the focus among the press corps had shifted. It was Davey Johnson’s final series as Nationals Manager, and both he and President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo recapped the season while looking ahead to 2014.

President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo, left, and new Manager Matt Williams shared a smile during Williams' introductory press conference.

President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo, left, and new Manager Matt Williams shared a smile during Williams’ introductory press conference.

At the same time, in the other dugout, Diamondbacks Manager Kirk Gibson fielded questions about his third base coach, Matt Williams, who was one of the men rumored as a possible candidate for the Nationals’ impending vacancy.

“I think he’d be great,” Gibson said. “He was obviously a good player. We’ve worked closely together since I’ve been a manager. He’s got a good mind for it.”

Gibson has managed the Arizona Diamondbacks the past three-and-a-half seasons, leading them to the 2011 NL West title. Williams was at Gibson’s side throughout his tenure in the desert, moving from first base coach to third base coach upon Gibson’s ascension to the managerial role.

“We’re similar,” Gibson continued. “He’s a fierce competitor. He understands the game. We break it down. He’s a tireless worker and believes in heavy preparation. Never gives in.”

Gibson also noted Williams’ success as a manager in the Arizona Fall League, a training ground for managers as well as players. Williams led the Salt River Rafters to a 17-13 mark in 2012, strong enough for the East Division title. Those Nationals fans that pay attention to the AFL may remember that Washington prospects – including Brian Goodwin, Anthony Rendon and Matt Skole – played on that Salt River squad. That managing experience and first-hand knowledge of players within the organization, along with his shared history with Rizzo in Arizona, no doubt helped Williams’ candidacy.

*          *          * 

There is another side to Williams, though, one which I was able to witness in person as he spoke at a Minor League hot stove dinner hosted by the Fresno Grizzlies (the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate) in February of 2011. Williams was set to appear as the guest of honor, alongside fellow Giants legend Will Clark, following San Francisco’s first-ever World Series title. But Clark was held up by bad weather, and Williams instead shared the stage that night with Sergio Romo – then a young reliever who’d not yet ascended to the Giants’ closer role.

The two entertained the crowd throughout the evening, leading into the live auction, benefiting the Fresno Grizzlies Community Fund.

Following the press conference, Williams answered additional questions in the media huddle.

Following the press conference, Williams answered additional questions in the media huddle.

That auction culminated with a feverish bidding war over the grand prize: a weekend trip to see the Giants in Spring Training. When the auctioneer had reached a tipping point, and one bidder could go no further, Williams unexpectedly stood up and politely interrupted him, asking if he could speak for a moment. He asked the gentleman who had been outbid if he would still be willing to pay for the package at the price he had last offered. When assured that he was, Williams then turned to the dinner organizers to see if two such grand prizes could be procured. When it was determined that they could, Williams turned back to the two bidders to see if each would be agreeable purchasing their respective packages.

The maneuver paid off. Thanks to his ability to think on his feet, Williams helped secure double the donation for the Community Fund.

I relate this story not to suggest anything about Williams’ ability to think on his feet as the next manager of the Nationals. Rather, it underscores his presence of mind to help a good cause, revealing the human side of a man taking on a role where that can all too often be lost.

*          *          *

On the final day of this past Nationals season, after saying my goodbyes and offering well-wishes in the clubhouse following the game, I shuffled out to the elevators to the players’ parking lot at Chase Field. As I stepped through the metal doors, thoughts of another season of baseball the last thing on my mind, one other familiar person stood in front of me, ready to leave the park.

And so, we silently rode the elevator together – Williams and I – before departing on our own paths to Washington.

An Offseason Field Trip

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by Noah Frank

There may not have been any games played at Nationals Park last weekend, but the field was still put to good use. The Washington Nationals and the Baseball Tomorrow Fund (BTF) partnered to host the first Field Maintenance Clinic at Nationals Park as part of the Field Maintenance Education Program, a joint initiative between BTF and Major League Baseball.

Nationals Head Groundskeeper John Turnour and Assistant Head Groundskeeper Mike Hrivnak hosted 25 local coaches from more than 20 youth organizations on Saturday morning.

The two-hour clinic featured instruction on everything from maintaining the lip of the grass to prevent bad hops to keys to ensuring a safe, playable mound and the do’s and don’ts of clearing water off a wet infield. Turnour and Hrivnak were able to take the work they do on a Major League field and translate it into tips that youth leagues can use, even though they don’t have the same resources available. One such piece of advice was that it’s better to use towels to remove standing water on a field rather than sweeping it off with a broom.

In conjunction with the clinic, the Nationals and BTF selected Banneker City Little League to receive a $10,000 grant. The newly formed league will use the money for the upkeep and renovation of the upper field at Banneker Community Center. Check out photos from the clinic in the slideshow below.

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Arizona Fall League, Week 2 (10.15-21)

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by Noah Frank

Each week, we will recap the performances of the eight members of the Nationals organization participating in the Arizona Fall League, a “finishing school” for top prospects.

The eight Nationals players are members of the Mesa Solar Sox, which is comprised of young stars from the Nationals, Angels, Athletics, Cubs and Tigers farm systems. The Solar Sox will battle the Glendale Desert Dogs, Peoria Javelinas, Salt River Rafters, Scottsdale Scorpions and Surprise Saguaros during the six-week season, with each team made up of players from five MLB organizations.

Here is a look at the Week 2 performances from the Valley of the Sun, where Mesa’s 8-2 record is easily the league’s best:

ROBERT BENINCASA | RHP

Weekly Totals: 3 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 SO

Overall Totals: 4 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 3 SO

After allowing a single run in each of his first two outings, the former Florida State Seminole has posted consecutive scoreless frames in his last two relief appearances. 

BRIAN GOODWIN | OF

Weekly Totals: .235/.235/.235, 1 R in 17 plate appearances

Overall Totals: .290/.333/.355, 2 2B, 2 RBI, 3 R, 2 SB, 1 BB in 33 plate appearances

The top position prospect in Washington’s system hit safely in six of seven AFL contests so far. He’s teed up left-handed pitching in the early going (in, albeit, a very small sample size), going 4-for-8 with both of his extra-base hits against southpaws. Goodwin also stole a pair of bases in his second week with the Solar Sox.

RICHIE MIROWSKI | RHP

Weekly Totals: 2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 2 SO

Overall Totals: 3 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 3 SO

The 24-year-old right-hander continued to impress against right-handed hitters, who are 0-for-6 with three strikeouts against him. While Mirowski did allow his first run of the fall, he has yet to yield a walk through his first three outings.

ADRIAN NIETO | C

Weekly Totals: .143/.333/.143, 1 RBI, 2 BB in 9 plate appearances

Overall Totals: .308/.444/.385/, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 2 R, 1 SF, 4 BB in 18 plate appearances

The switch-hitting Nieto continued to show an impressive eye at the plate, where he racked up four walks with just three punch outs so far. This should come as no surprise to fans of the Potomac Nationals, who saw Nieto draw 53 walks while fanning just 82 times in 452 plate appearances this season.

Purke dominated through four hitless innings last week.

Purke dominated through four hitless innings last week. (Jason Wise/MLB.com)

MATT PURKE | LHP

Weekly Totals: (1-0), 4 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 HBP, 1 BB, 7 SO

Overall Totals: (2-0), 7 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 HPB, 2 BB, 9 SO

Purke cruised to his second win in as many Arizona Fall League starts with four hitless innings of work last Thursday against Peoria. While he walked and hit a batter, the promising lefty fanned seven — half of the 14 batters he faced as Mesa cruised to a 6-1 victory. Nationals officials said Purke did well attacking hitters, showing good command of his fastball and his changeup.

After two outings, Purke is tied for second in the league in wins (2), third in WHIP (0.57), fourth in opponents batting average (.083) and tied for fourth in strikeouts (9).

MATT SKOLE | 1B/3B

Weekly Totals: .375/.643/.875, 1 2B, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 4 R, 6 BB in 10 plate appearances

Overall Totals: .313/.542/.750, 1 2B, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 6 R, 8 BB in 24 plate appearances

Despite opposing pitchers’ best efforts to pitch around him, Skole managed hits in each of the three games he played last week, while also collecting six walks. He continued to display the dual ability to show great patience at the plate while also hitting for power, as he swatted his first double and second home run of the fall, striking out only once this week.

In his five games played, Skole has reached at least twice in four of them, so it should be no shock that his .542 on-base percentage  ranks second in the league. Skole, who spent much of the year rehabbing April Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow, also ranks among league leaders in walks (tied for third, 8) and slugging percentage (fifth, .750).

Solis earned two victories last week and leads the circuit with three wins.

Solis earned two victories last week and leads the circuit with three wins. (Jason Wise/MLB.com)

SAMMY SOLIS | LHP

Weekly Totals:  (2-0), 9.0 IP, 9 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 12 SO

Overall Totals: (3-0), 12.2 IP, 12 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 4 BB, 14 SO

Solis may have had the most notable week of all the Washington prospects, starting twice and pitching Mesa to a win both times. His eight-strikeout performance in just four innings in a 7-4 win over Scottsdale stands out as a particularly good sign for how he’s progressing, as he fanned no more than five batters in any of his 14 regular season outings this year.

After missing the 2012 season, Solis entered 2013 ranked as  the 11th-best prospect in the Washington system by MLB.com. But the left-hander now leads the AFL with three wins and ranks second in both innings pitched (12.2) and strikeouts (14).

STEVEN SOUZA, JR. | OF

Weekly Totals: .200/.500/.200, 2 RBI, 1 R, 1 SB, 3 BB in 8 plate appearances

Overall Totals: .308/.500/.385, 1 2B, 5 RBI, 2 R, 6 SB, 5 BB in 18 plate appearances

Souza started just two games last week, but reached base twice in each contest. He walked twice, stole a base and scored a run on Saturday against Salt River. He is now a perfect 6-for-6 on the basepaths, sharing the league lead in steals.

Harper Turns 21

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As you’ve no doubt already heard, Bryce Harper turned 21 today. It’s worth taking a moment to realize just what that means, and to appreciate just how much he has already accomplished.

With that in mind, here are 21 of our favorite things about the Nationals All-Star outfielder, in an only somewhat particular order. Think we missed something? Let us know in the comments below:

21. The number of outfield assists Harper has amassed in his first two seasons, collecting 13 in just 115 games this year (more on that later).

20. At 20, on his first Major League Opening Day, Harper’s first swing of the season crushed a breaking ball from Ricky Nolasco into the seats for Washington’s first run. In his very next at-bat, he did it again, beginning his season with not just one bang, but a pair of them.

19. Harper provided a moment nearly as dramatic exactly three months later when he stepped back onto the field at Nationals Park, after a stint on the disabled list, and found the seats yet again. A standing ovation greeted him as he dug into the box, and he blasted an opposite-field home run, leading Washington to a 10-5 victory.

18. It was another 24 days until Harper’s next homer, but he didn’t lose his flair for the moment over that span. After Washington coughed up a ninth-inning lead against the Pirates, Harper blasted a two-run, walk-off shot into the Red Porch seats — the first walk-off home run of his career.

17. Of course, Harper can also win games with his glove. He gave up his body in the ninth inning of a one-run game in Kansas City, making one of his most spectacular catches to date.

16. In partnership with the Nationals and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Harper’s Heroes was a season-long program that treats families affected by childhood cancers to a fun-filled day at Nationals Park. The VIP experience, held on six separate occasions in 2013, included a private meet and greet with Harper as well as a special batting practice viewing, T-shirts and tickets to the game, complete with NatsBucks.

15. It’s probably time to stop running on Harper.

14. For running until they tag him.

13. The 2013 season marked Bryce’s second All-Star appearance in as many campaigns. We get the sense he’ll have a few more before he’s done playing.

12. That’s Harper’s total number of triples through two seasons, which allow us to appreciate his self-helmet removal device.

11. That’s exactly how many games back of the Braves the Nationals found themselves after a pair of tough losses in Detroit, when Harper decided to be more vocal. That led him to go out and make T-shirts for the club, which recorded the best record in the Major Leagues (34-20) the rest of the season.

10. C’mon. Stop running on Bryce.

9. That’s how many more seasons of Major League experience Jayson Werth has than Harper, whom Werth has taken under his wing. Watching their big brother-little brother relationship grow has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of the past two seasons.

8. The setup to “the steal.” After Harper was plunked by Cole Hamels with nobody on and two out the first time he’d ever faced Hamels, Harper stood at first as Werth dropped a single into left field. Recognizing that outfielder Juan Pierre was fielding the ball, Harper knew he could be aggressive on the bases, as he scorched around second and into third base. All of which led to…

7. “The steal.” With the lefty Hamels paying more attention to Werth, Harper timed him on a pickoff throw to first. When Hamels lobbed another ball over, Harper took off, sprinting home and sliding in ahead of Carlos Ruiz’s tag for a steal of home. He joined a list that includes Hall of Famer Cal Ripken as players who made their first stolen base as a major leaguer one of home plate. And he did it all in front of a national television audience on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.

6. Harper’s relationship with 13-year-old Gavin Rupp. Harper and Rupp bonded before a home game this season, when Harper went above and beyond the call of duty to not just spend time with Rupp, but to really get to know him as a human being. As part of the SU2C (Stand Up to Cancer) campaign during the All-Star Home Run Derby, Harper held up a card reading “I Stand Up for Gavin Rupp” for the world to see. Harper is among many in the Nationals family who continue to mourn Rupp’s all-too-early passing later that month.

5. Harper is one of just five players with at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases prior to his 21st birthday. The complete list:

Bryce Harper 42 HR, 29 SB
Ken Griffey, Jr. 38 HR, 32 SB
Mike Trout 24 HR, 40 SB
Andruw Jones 26 HR, 25 SB
Adrian Beltre 22 HR, 21 SB

4. Seriously. Don’t run on Bryce.

3. That is the total number of Major League players in history with more than 40 home runs at age 20 or younger. Harper’s 42 career long balls prior to age 21 trail just Mel Ott (61) and Tony Conigliaro (56) on the all-time list.

2. Although he didn’t win the competition, Harper advanced all the way to the finals of the 2013 Home Run Derby. He put on a show and gave eventual champion Yoenis Cespedes a good run for his money in what is hopefully just his first of many appearances in the annual event.

So, what’s number one?

1. That’s a clown question, bro.

Thank You for Your Service

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Putting on an event for as many as 40,000 people, feeding them, entertaining them, addressing their concerns and catering to their needs, is a tall task that requires many moving parts working together, in concert. Putting on 81 of such events, in strings of as many as 10 or 11 in a row, sometimes twice in the same day, is a monumental task. It requires far more helping hands than the front office staff alone can offer.

That’s where our TEAM Service members come in. A staff of 1,750 workers, local Washingtonians, Virginians and Marylanders staff the ballpark and provide everything they can to ensure your fan experience is the best possible. This year, we asked fans to nominate and vote for the best of the best, who were rewarded on the field prior to the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader on the final day of the regular season. Then, this past weekend, they enjoyed a trip to St. Louis to take in Game 1 of the NLCS between the Cardinals and Dodgers. The contest turned out to be a classic postseason ballgame, with the home side winning, 3-2, in 13 innings.

Selckman (back left), Lavigne (back center-right) and Howard (back center) were just three of the TEAM Service members on the trip.

Selckman (back left), Lavigne (back center-right) and Howard (back center) were just three of the TEAM Service members on the trip.

Karen Selckman, a bartender out at the Red Porch, was one of this year’s winners. She’s been pouring from the center field restaurant since the ballpark opened back in 2008 and has formed a group of regulars. But she was blown away to learn that she had received the honor.

“It’s completely overwhelming,” she said. “It’s flattering and I’m shocked.”

For employees like Selckman, customers with smiling faces is reward enough. This is just icing on the cake.

“What else can you ask for, you know?” she said. “If people are happy, we’re happy. It’s personal, so when you know that people are happy, it’s very fulfilling.”

Mike Lavigne has been a Guest Experience Usher, and has also worked at Nationals Park since it opened six seasons ago. He enjoys not just the company of the fans, but all his fellow coworkers, and was pleasantly surprised to be singled out among them for this honor.

“We’ve got so many good folks, how did I sneak through?” he joked upon learning of the award.

In his six years, Lavigne has seen the growth of both the team on the field and the fan base as it comes to accept the Nationals as its own team. That continued growth and connection keeps him coming back every year with more passion than the last.

“Just look at it,” he explained. “The fan base, when we were first starting out, there was a lot of excitement … I think Washington has been starving for baseball for a long time.”

The view from the seats at Busch Stadium.

The view from the seats at Busch Stadium.

Lavigne’s favorite part of the job is simply the human element, the ability to interact with fellow baseball fans as they escape their daily routine at the ballpark.

“I get to watch a little bit of baseball, I get to interact with folks that I don’t get to do in the regular job. It’s just a big win. Frankly, folks want to be here. This is different than other sports.”

“Big” Al Howard is a CSC Event Staff member, one of many in charge of managing crowd control in The District’s largest sporting venue. That can be a thankless position sometimes, especially when events outside of his control cause friction among the fans. But he takes it all in stride as part of the position.

“Customer service is exactly what it says: customer service,” Howard explained. “Sometimes you have to bend over backwards. Sometimes you have to take the mud in the face. But at the same time, you try to make that experience enjoyable and at least try to accommodate whatever their questions are.”

So what is Howard’s greatest reward in the three years he has worked at Nationals Park?

“People remembering your name. People remembering you for what you’ve done. Somebody saying ‘Thank you,’ or coming back to you, or asking for you or a compliment via someone else about you.”

Consider this a big thank you from all of us at the Nationals for another great season. See you all in 2014.

A Werthy Candidate

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Andrew McCutchen is going to win the National League Most Valuable Player Award. One of his Pirates teammates, either Marlon Byrd or Francisco Liriano, seems destined to win National League Comeback Player of the Year. The honors will be deserved, as they have all had exemplary seasons, worthy of such accolades. And while Jayson Werth will not take home either of those – he was not even a finalist for the Comeback Player of the Year Award – there is a third honor for which he is nominated that he absolutely deserves: The Hank Aaron Award.

Each year, every team in baseball has a single nominee for the award, which recognizes the most outstanding offensive performer in each league. And although the Nationals received a number of standout performances in 2013 – from Ian Desmond leading all National League shortstops in extra-base hits to Ryan Zimmerman’s prolific September that left him with the team lead in home runs – Werth’s career year stood above the rest.

Despite early season injuries, Jayson Werth enjoyed a career year.

Despite early season injuries, Jayson Werth enjoyed a career year.

When the dust settled on the 2013 regular season, only one player ranked in the top five in the National League in OPS (second, .931), slugging percentage (third, .532), on-base percentage batting (fifth, .398) and batting (tied-fifth, .318). And although he played just 129 games due to some lingering injuries, Werth still slugged 25 home runs en route to a 154 OPS+.

For those of you more inclined towards advanced statistics, consider wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), a statistic that Grantland baseball writer Jonah Keri considers “the most telling offensive stat in the game.” The statistic attempts to quantify a player’s total offensive value and measure it by runs, and is park- and league-adjusted. For a complete breakdown, see the Fangraphs explanation here.

Despite wRC+ being a ratio, it is also a counting stat, meaning that it will go up the more extra-base hits, stolen bases, etc. achieved. And despite playing in only those 129 games, Jayson Werth (160) led all of the National League in wRC+ in 2013.

That’s right, better than the five-tool player McCutchen (155). Higher than both sluggers Paul Goldschmidt (156) and Joey Votto (156), who each appeared in at least 160 games. And Werth provided those runs for the Nationals all while maintaining his trademark patience at the plate.

Fans at Nationals Park show their support for their right fielder.

Fans at Nationals Park show their support for their right fielder.

Once again, Werth led the National League in pitches per plate appearance – just as he did in 2011 (4.37), 2010 (4.37) and 2009 (4.50) – clocking in at 4.24. The 34-year-old veteran paced a trio of Nationals in the top dozen in the league (Adam LaRoche, ninth – 4.07, Zimmerman, 12th – 4.01) as Washington was the lone Senior Circuit club with three players over the four-pitch threshold. Werth’s 4.42 career mark is still the highest active rate in Major League Baseball and among the highest of all time (third, unofficially) since the statistic began being tracked in the 1980s.

He also continued to steal bases at an exceedingly high rate, swiping 10 bags in 11 attempts. That raised his career success rate to 87.0 percent (114-for-131), good for fourth all-time in Major League history among qualifying players.

While continuing to do what he does best, Werth shrugged off early injuries en route to the National League Player of the Month Award in July, and made a great case to repeat the feat in August. He set career marks in batting and OPS, exceeding the 2010 season that saw him earn an eighth-place finish in the National League MVP voting. And while he may ultimately fall short of other awards this season, the Hank Aaron Award should – literally – have his name all over it.

- VOTE NOW FOR JAYSON WERTH FOR THE 2013 HANK AARON AWARD -

Improbabilities and Impossibilities

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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.

Leverage

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.

Denard Span keyed another improbable Nationals victory.

Denard Span keyed another improbable Nationals victory in game one.

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:

Improbabilities

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.

Don’t Panic

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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.

While the Nationals are known for their pitching, a potent offense helped them to the best run differential in baseball.

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.

Ross Detwiler has been excellent at home this season.

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.

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