It's hard to believe: Once again, a Washington Nationals season ended in part because they were unwilling to use Stephen Strasburg. I think we're figuring out why the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals keep winning these playoff series against their National League opponents. Five key moments from the Giants' 3-2, series-clinching win over the Nationals -- their seventh postseason series win a row:
1. What was Matt Williams thinking?
So once again, we have a manager saving his best relievers for possible crucial innings rather than actual ones.
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) October 8, 2014
Soriano against a lefty. This is barely better. Matt Williams has completely screwed this inning up.
— David Cameron (@DCameronFG) October 8, 2014
San Francisco PD putting out an APB on 6-foot-4, 220-pound white male. Chin hair. Really good right arm. Name: Strasburg, Stephen.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 8, 2014
OK, I didn't want to spend the postseason ripping managerial moves, so, yes, give credit to the Giants for scraping across the go-ahead run in the seventh inning. But Matt Williams made a series of moves that defied logic. As my colleague Christina Kahrl e-mailed me, a "gruesome series of manager-achieved mismatches."
The game was tied 2-2 after Bryce Harper's home run in the top of the inning. The Nationals' season is on the line. Do they use Stephen Strasburg, who was still available in relief -- in an "emergency only," according to Williams postgame, but doesn't "the season is on the line" qualify? No. Do they use Tyler Clippard, their excellent setup guy? No. Do they use closer Drew Storen? No. Rafael Soriano or Craig Stammen? Nope. Instead he uses Matt Thornton and Aaron Barrett, arguably his sixth- and seventh-best options left at that point.
Using Thornton to start the inning was at least defensible, with two lefties starting the inning. But after Joe Panik singled, you cannot let Thornton face Buster Posey, who has a career OPS 155 points higher against lefties. Posey singled, drilling a line drive to center. Now Williams goes to the pen ... and brings in Barrett, a rookie who walked 20 batters in 40 2/3 innings. It's your biggest moment of the season and you bring in a rookie who has trouble throwing strikes with two runners on? With your entire stable of late-inning relievers and Strasburg still available? And you thought Ned Yost mismanaged that sixth inning against the A's. ...
OK, OK, the players have to do the job. Barrett didn't. But the manager's job is to put the right players in the right situation. Pence walked on a 3-2 fastball. Pablo Sandoval -- ohh, now batting from his much stronger left side because Thornton had been used to start the inning -- was now up. Barrett chunked a fastball in the dirt to score Panik. With the count 3-1, the Nats decided to put Sandoval on and Barrett threw another wild pitch, saved only when the ball rebounded right to Wilson Ramos, who made a perfect throw to Barrett to nail Posey. (The play was reviewed and upheld.)
The Nationals lost 3-2 in a game decided late, while their two best relievers and the starter who led the league in strikeouts and was available were left rotting in the bullpen, unused. You cannot go down like that.
2. Bryce Harper makes ball go far.
Can't wait for this Bryce Harper-Hunter Strickland duel this inning. Their last meeting led to a lunar mission.
— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) October 8, 2014
Classic blunders: Land war in Asia, going against a Sicilian when death is on the line, missing middle-in on Bryce Harper down in the count.
— Christina Kahrl (@ChristinaKahrl) October 8, 2014
The last time I saw something arc like that followed by that much swearing some Rebs had fired a mortar into my platoon.
— Old Hoss Radbourn (@OldHossRadbourn) October 8, 2014
In the end, the Nationals didn't hit and that's what ultimately lost the series, not one horrific inning of relief pitcher selection. They had four hits in this game and scored nine runs in four games (or five, counting all 18 innings of Game 2). The one hitter who showed up was Harper, who crushed a Hunter Strickland into McCovey Cove, a beautiful moon shot for the kayakers to chase after.
For a few minutes there, it looked like the Nationals were going to come back and get a Game 5 back in Washington.
3. The bloop, the error, the bunt, the walk, the groundout.
OK, that's five moments, not one. But that's how the Giants scored two runs to take a 2-0 lead in the second inning. It could have been disastrous, but Gio Gonzalez got Posey on a hard grounder to third to end the inning with runners on second and third. If that ball gets through, Williams is crushed for not getting Strasburg or another reliever up earlier to face the right-handed Posey. (Well, Williams found another for the media to crush him.)
Brandon Crawford's flare to left and Gonzalez's error on Juan Perez's comebacker got the inning going, but it was Vogelsong's bunt that keyed the inning. ESPN researcher Mark Simon wrote here in September how Anthony Rendon was arguably the best among third basemen in fielding bunts this season and he was charging on the play so it should have been his play, but it appeared Gonzalez got in the way. Regardless, a miscommunication from the Nationals loaded the bases and Gonzalez walked leadoff hitter Gregor Blanco on four pitches to force in the first run. Panik then grounded an 0-2 fastball to first -- not a hit, but two-strike contact to score a run, reminiscent of what the Giants did so well in 2012 and what other postseason teams often fail to do.
Anyway, two unearned runs without hitting the ball hard. That's how you scored runs in this series.
4. Hunter Pence makes great catch.
— #OctoberTogether (@SFGiants) October 8, 2014
With Ryan Vogelsong on the ropes after a shaky fifth inning -- his fastball velocity had dropped from 93-94 in the first couple of innings down to his regular-season average of 90-91 -- Rendon lined out to Pence leading off the sixth and then Jayson Werth drove a long fly to the wall in right field. Pence raced and stumbled after it as only Pence can in his awkward but effective style, blindly reached his glove up, caught the ball and crashed into the chain-link fence in front of the wide-eyed fans in the seating area.
Fabulous. But not unexpected. It's kind of been the Year of Pence. He played all 162 games for the second season in a row, made the All-Star team, got his scooter back after somebody stole it and became a national phenomenon as fans in ballparks across the country began trolling him with fun signs.
Gives us those Hunter Pence faces, Giants fans.
5. Giants miss opportunity to break it open.
Pablo Sandoval as a righty: 59 wRC+ As a lefty: 136 wRC+
— Beyond the Box Score (@BtBScore) October 8, 2014
2-0 changeup. Dang.
— Grant Brisbee (@mccoveychron) October 8, 2014
That moment is pretty much exactly why the Nats got Blevins.
— Chris Cwik (@Chris_Cwik) October 8, 2014
Bases loaded, fifth inning, one out, Giants up 2-1: Despite Sandoval being a much better hitter from the left side, Matt Williams left in righty Tanner Roark to pitch to him, an interesting call with Belt on deck and considering that Roark isn't a big ground-ball pitcher (and even less so against left-handed batters). In fact, among 88 qualified starters, Roark ranked 83rd in ground-ball percentage against left-handed batters, so a double play wasn't likely. He's also not a big strikeout guy. But Roark got his guy with that terrific 2-0 changeup and then Jerry Blevins got Belt on a 1-2 curveball.