Why Did the Nationals and Dodgers Come Up Short Once Again?
The Los Angeles Dodgers came into the National League playoffs with a 97-68 record, a .580 winning percentage, and a payroll of about $229 million dollars. The Washington Nationals finished with the best record in the National League at 96-66, and had a pitching staff that was the hottest in the Majors.
Both failed to win the requisite three games necessary to advance to the National League Championship Series. Both are going home early.
We all know that the Major League Baseball playoffs are largely a crapshoot. A five-game series is equivalent to 3.1% of the 162-game regular season, so teams are moving on in the playoffs based on an extremely small sample size. But there is no other way to do it, unless you want to institute a 27-game series, and I don't think that's in the cards.
The playoffs have always been about the team that plays best over that particular week, and for this week, the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals were better than the Nats and Dodgers.
So what went wrong? How did Los Angeles and Washington fall short once again?
To say that the offenses went cold for the Dodgers and Nationals would be a bit of an understatement.
The Dodgers scored nine runs in their Game 1 loss to the Cardinals. In Games 2, 3, and 4, they scored a combined six runs. The Nats' highest output for any one game was when they "exploded" for four runs in their Game 3 win, and two of those runs were directly the result of a throwing error by San Francisco starter Madison Bumgarner.
For the Nationals, two of their best hitters, Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth, had a very tough League Division Series. LaRoche went 1-for-18 in the series (.056 batting average) and Werth went 1-for-17 (.059). Denard Span went just 2-for-19 (.105), Wilson Ramos went 2-for-17 (.118) and Ian Desmond went 3-for-18 (.167). Their team-wide offensive futility was a repeat of their five-game loss to the Cardinals in the 2012 playoffs, where they hit .232 as a team, with a .290 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage of .393.
The only Washington players who performed well offensively were their two young stars, Bryce Harper, who went 5-for-17 with three home runs and four RBI, and Anthony Rendon, who went 7-for-19, for a .368 batting average.
For the Dodgers, they were hurt by Dee Gordon's 3-for-17 (.176), Adrian Gonzalez's 3-for-16 (.188) and Yasiel Puig's 3-for-12 (.250). Puig was, in fact, benched and did not get a plate appearance in Game 4 (more on that in a moment).
Questionable Managerial Moves
Both Washington manager Matt Williams and Los Angeles skipper Don Mattingly made moves that will be second-guessed this offseason.
In Game 2, Williams pulled his best starter, Jordan Zimmermann, in a 1-0 game in which Zimmermann had pitched 8.2 innings of nearly unhittable ball. He walked a man on a 95 mph fastball with two outs and at 100 pitches, yet Williams put in closer Drew Storen to record the final out. Of course, Storen gave up a single to Buster Posey and a game-tying double to Pablo Sandoval, which sent the game into the 18-inning marathon that put Washington in an unrecoverable 0-2 hole.
Then in Game 4 last night, instead of putting in a veteran reliever during the seventh inning, Williams inserted rookie Aaron Barrett. Barrett uncorked a wild pitch with the bases loaded to bring home the game-winning run.
In Game 4, Mattingly made two decisions, although one was more defensible than the other. With their season on the line, he chose to start Clayton Kershaw on short rest. Since 1985, when a team pitches a starter on short rest against a team with a pitcher on regular rest, the team with the pitcher on short rest is 18-35. And according to Baseball Reference, pitchers working on three days' rest in the postseason have a collective ERA of 4.14. For starters on regular rest, it's a 3.64 ERA in playoff history.
In the seventh inning Tuesday night, Kershaw gave up a couple of hits with a 2-0 lead and then St. Louis' Matt Adams, a left-handed hitter no less, launched an improbable three-run home run to give the Cardinals the series-clinching margin of victory.
Mattingly shouldn't really be criticized for using Kershaw on short rest in a do-or-die game, nor should he really take much guff for allowing Kershaw to start the seventh. Kershaw had thrown just 94 pitches going into that inning. However, his handling of Puig deserves a bit more criticism.
Puig posted a Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) of 5.1 in 2014 and had a nERD of 2.61 - meaning a lineup full of Puigs would score 2.61 runs a game more than a lineup of league average players - that was 14th best among all MLB hitters this year. L.A. mustered just two runs in Game 4 and I don't think it made any sense to bench a player who has the ability to break out of a mini-slump at any minute and single-handedly carry a team to victory.
D.C. Bullpen Issues
Teams with uncertain bullpen situations often have a hard time succeeding in the playoffs. Detroit found that out the hard way in their series against the Orioles, and the Nationals also discovered that in their series against the Giants.
While the 'pen pitched well for most of that Game 2 epic, the game was sent into extra innings thanks to another shaky postseason performance from closer Drew Storen. That's the same pitcher who blew a ninth-inning lead in Game 5 of the NLDS against St. Louis back in 2012. The Nats had already removed Rafael Soriano from the closer's role late in the season. Then in Game 4, middle relievers Matt Thornton and Barrett gave up the go-ahead run, just a half inning after Harper tied the game with a blast into McCovey Cove.
L.A. Ace Issues
The Dodgers lost two games started by Kershaw, the man most likely to win NL MVP honors, and the guy who went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA in the regular season. That's right, Kershaw lost three games in the entire regular season but lost twice in a four-game stretch in the LDS.
His postseason ERA this year was 7.82 as he gave up 11 earned runs in 12.2 innings. The big blow on Tuesday night came in the seventh inning off the bat of the lefty Adams, who hit a hanging Kershaw curveball out of the yard for a go-ahead home run.
Left-handers hit just .190/.225/.252 against Clayton in 2014, with only one home run. And in the two games he pitched in this series, Kershaw was terrific in innings 1-6, giving up just two runs in those 12 innings. He gave up nine runs in his two seventh innings, failing to make it out of the inning in each appearance. That follows last year's meltdown against the Cardinals in which Kershaw gave up seven runs in Game 6 of the NLCS against them.
ELIAS: Before Matt Adams… Clayton Kershaw had not allowed a home run of three runs or more since June 9, 2012, to Miguel Olivo.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) October 8, 2014
What has happened to Kershaw in the playoffs these last two years is simply unexplainable.
So now, both the Nationals and Dodgers will spend a long off-season trying to figure out how to fix their problems. Will the Nats try to shake up their lineup and add some more reliable help in the bullpen? Will the Dodgers break up a largely unhappy and highly-paid clubhouse? Will they make changes to a coaching staff that had a clear "win-now" mandate?
Or do they simply look at themselves as the victims of the randomness and small sample size that is the Major League Baseball playoffs?