3 Things the Washington Nationals Need to Do to Win the NLDS
Heading into the National League Divisional Series, I didn't think it was possible for the San Francisco Giants to defeat the Washington Nationals' disgusting starting rotation. Considering they've only scored six total runs through 36 innings, it seems as though that has come true. Yet, last night, the Giants still had a chance to sweep through the National League's regular season wins leader. Baseball is weird.
Even after Monday's 4-1 win, the remaining two games are still do-or-die. Regardless of the pitching matchups, it's hard to say definitively that the Nationals have a chance with the way the lineup has hit thus far. At the same time, it's just two games. This series is pretty much wide open right now.
With their playoff lives on the line, it's time for this Nationals team to show why the expectations the last three years have been justified. But how can they do that when they're backed in a corner? Here are three things they need to happen if they want to reverse course and send themselves into the National League Championship Series.
1. Support Anthony Rendon's Dopeness
Memo to all the Nats hitters out there: Y'all ain't worthy of Anthony Rendon's illitude. Brudduh has been out there stroking and poking, and you have not lent the man a pinky of support. Shame on every single one of you.
In his 16 trips to the plate in the series, Rendon has been kept off the bases only nine times. Three of those outs came after the ninth inning of Saturday's game. This is all super saucy. Yet he has failed to score a run, and he has only driven in one in the series. How does that happen? The answer is pretty easy: those around him have failed to live up to the expectations they set forward for themselves during the regular season.
Let's start with Denard Span. As a lifelong Twins fan, I love Denard more than I can describe. His .381 wOBA in the second half of the season made my insides all tingly, inspiring numberFire's Ben Bruno to pen this gorgeous love letter about Span's value to the Nats. But with all of that said, my man-crush let Rendon and the Nats down the first two games of the series. He got on base a total of one time in his first 12 trips, making Rendon's at-bats borderline meaningless.
Thankfully, it looks like the Span we know and have creepy dreams about seems to be back. He has reached base in three of his last six plate appearances. His re-emergence combined with Rendon's delightfulness should give the Nats a decent shot to advance. You know, if the guys hitting behind them weren't also slumping violently.
Through Game 3, both Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche had the same batting average and slugging percentage. Based on how they hit in the regular season, you'd assume that'd be a good thing. Not so much. With both players hitting and slugging .071, it's a miracle this team is still alive.
Because playoff series have such a frustratingly small sample size, it's impossible to assume that the talented guys like Span, Werth and LaRoche will regress to their means in time to make a difference. But they'll need to in order to keep this train rolling and to avoid another disappointment.
2. Let Harper Stroke
Outside of Rendon, the lone offensive bright spot this series has been Bryce Harper. Who would have expected that in July?
Through the first three games, the Nats have only five extra-base hits; two of those are Harper dingers. This slugging production would be great if only he had guys on-base in front of him. Unfortunately, there are three hitters between Rendon and Harper, and those three are hitting a combined .095 in the series. Good fun!
With that in mind, why not slide Harper up in the order? I'm not opposed to having Werth and LaRoche both ahead of him - they both had seasons more than good enough to hit in their respective slots. But Ian Desmond is another story.
In the second half of the season, Harper hit .288/.359/.454 with a .361 wOBA. Desmond hit .272/.341/.427 with a .341. Although Desmond's numbers weren't bad, he fell short of Harper in every category. Slide Bryce up into the five-hole and reap the benefits once Werth and LaRoche inevitably turn things around. Unless those frightening screaming baseball commercials come back. Those are most definitely bench worthy.
3. Keep on Chucking
Okay, so I said that you can't look at the pitching matchups, but I lied. Shocker. If they were to accomplish the top two things on the list, then this one would be a whole lot easier. And it's really hard to discount pitching when your pitching is as dirty as the Nationals'.
Tuesday, the Nats get to throw Gio Gonzalez to counter San Francisco's Ryan Vogelsong. While Gio hasn't been as lights-out as he was in 2012, he still had a solid season. Over his last seven starts, Gonzalez has has a 2.36 ERA and 2.85 FIP, including his last time out when he held the Mets to just one hit over seven innings.
If you broaden that to looking to his second start after returning from a shoulder injury, Gio looks even better. His walks-per-nine is down to 2.88 over that time while maintaining his 9.00 strikeout-per-nine ratio. His ERA is also 2.88 in those 17 starts. This man is a very good pitcher.
Vogelsong hasn't quite had the same stuff as Gio. In September, opponents had a .354 wOBA against Vogelsong. Considering he's 37 and only being paid $5 million, he seems as though he has filled his role this year, but it's tough to give a team in the edge in the playoffs when it's Gonzalez vs. Vogelsong.
The biggest thing Vogelsong has going in favor is where this game will be played. In San Francisco, Vogelson has a 3.06 ERA as opponents have a .276 wOBA against him. On the road, those numbers inflate to 5.10 and .373 respectively. This could very well end up being a low-scoring ball-game. If that's the case, the Nationals should (once again) be nervous until they check numbers one and two off of this list.
The Nats have yet to announce a potential Game 5 starter. Stephen Strasburg would be on five days rest after starting Game 1, and Jordan Zimmermann would be on a full four days rest, as well. I love me some Stras, but at the same time, Zim is the hottest pitcher in baseball. He has allowed three hits over his last 17.2 innings pitched. He has a 1.73 ERA in his 12 starts since the start of August if you include Game 2. It's the greatest problem you could possibly have when you are forced to choose between two brochachos like this.
If the Nationals were to accomplish the three things above, they would certainly have a good shot at turning this series around. But they would need all three to happen; you can't just start getting production at the top of the order or just get solid pitching (as the first two games showed). Washington is one of the best teams in the league, and it's time for them to finally show that when it counts.