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Nats fall 3-2 in Game 1 of the NLDS: What does it mean?

The Nationals lost Game 1 of the NLDS 3-2 to the San Francisco Giants. What does it mean to their chances moving forward in this series? We'll examine some key moments and players for the Nats in Friday's game as well.

Bryce Harper hit a majestic homer in the seventh inning of the Nationals 3-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants Friday.
Bryce Harper hit a majestic homer in the seventh inning of the Nationals 3-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants Friday.

The Nats struggled to get in the hit column early against Jake Peavy in Friday's 3-2 loss, but the bats came on late.  While they showed the tenacity that they've shown all season long after falling behind 3-0, they just couldn't come up with the big hit in the end.  We'll start by answering the question in the title of today's post before moving on to some analysis of a few key situations in the game.

What does losing Game 1 mean?

It's pretty simple really.  It means two things.

  1. The Nationals can't sweep this series
  2. The Nationals will need to win three out of the four (possible) remaining games in this series to advance
It does not mean that the season is over.  It does not even mean that they're on the brink of elimination.  While winning Saturday's game and avoiding going to San Francisco down 2-0 is important, it's not a must win. If you thought the Nationals were going to sweep their way to an 11-0 postseason, I encourage your optimism.  Stay optimistic that they can go 11-1.  Before Friday's game, I thought the Nationals would beat the Giants and advance.  After Friday, I still think the Nationals will beat the Giants and advance.  They have a more difficult task now.  That's all.

Three of the four remaining pitching matchups still appear to be favorable for the Nationals (Zimmermann vs. Hudson, Gonzalez vs. Petit, Strasburg vs. Peavy).  As brilliant as Madison Bumgarner was in the wildcard game the other day, I'm told that Doug Fister is no slouch himself.  Fister had an ERA more than a half run lower than Bumgarner did this season.  He also threw seven shutout innings to defeat Bumgarner and the Giants in San Francisco earlier this season.

We're probably going to hear a bunch of numbers in the next few days about how a team fares after losing Game 1 in the LDS since the wildcard era began.  They're not going to be great.  By my count, since 1995 (beginning of the wildcard era), 22 of the 76 teams (29%) that have lost Game 1 have advanced.

Now for a few thoughts on some key situations in Friday's game....

Adam LaRoche throwing to second on Jake Peavy's bunt/Wilson Ramos' passed ball

I'm not going to say that a player should never attempt to get the lead runner in a 0-0 game when the opposing team sacrifice bunts.  I am going to say that if you're going to throw to second there, you have to be sure you're going to get him.  It was a very close play that was correctly overturned by instant replay.  Even if they had gotten Ishikawa by an eyelash at second, it was a risk that wasn't really worth taking.  Take the out.

After a liner to center field kept Peavy and Ishikawa from advancing, it looked like Strasburg may work his way out of the jam before Ramos' passed ball moved both runners up.  I'm not sure it really had any effect on the inning and I'm sure that his attempt to catch the ball wasn't as casual as it looked.  Still, that passed ball can't happen at the big league level, much less in a playoff game.  It was a pretty routine play.

The passed ball took the double play off the table.  Panik ended up hitting a sharp liner to the right of the second base bag that Cabrera probably still doesn't get to if the infield is playing in double play depth.  Ishikawa isn't a great baserunner and Peavy got the stop light at third base, but I have a hunch Ishikawa gets the send (and scores) there even without the passed ball.

Bryce Harper's ABs and the moonshot

Harper had pretty strong at bats all game.  He may have chased some pitches out of the zone, but he worked the count deep and battled.  He battled for seven pitches in his first at bat before popping up a pitch at the top of the strike zone.  He worked a five pitch at bat before his single in the fifth inning.  Harper and Jayson Werth were largely responsible for running Peavy's pitch count up to 104 before he was pulled in the sixth inning.  The two combined to see 34 pitches in five plate appearances against him.

In his first at bat after the Nats had gotten into the Giants bullpen, Harper worked the count to 2-1 against Giants rookie flamethrower Hunter Strickland.  Then he did this:

It was one of the more majestic home runs I've seen in my lifetime.  While the Nats still trailed 3-1, it energized the crowd.  Two batters later, Asdrubal Cabrera would turn on a Strickland fastball and deposit it in the bullpen to cut the deficit to 3-2.  Alas, the Nats couldn't push across that third run to tie it.

Strasburg's performance

Strasburg started Friday's game on a tear.  He was throwing as hard as I've seen him throw since his return from Tommy John surgery in 2011.  It's easy to imagine that he had a little extra adrenaline flowing as he was making his first career postseason start.  As the game wore on, the fastball velocity and command started tailing off a little earlier than we expect.  We'll see by the strike zone plot that Stras certainly wasn't locating as well as he'd like.

That's a lot of misses towards the right-handed batter's box and an awful lot of strikes up in the zone.  It looks like his plan was to work away from a lot of the left-handed hitters, but he seemed to be flying open a bit and having trouble locating.  On Ramos' passed ball, he was set up on the inner half for a fastball on a pitch that missed off the plate away.  Strasburg's location just wasn't crisp today.

There was a lot of discussion in the game thread about how Ramos wasn't calling for the curve very often.  It's possible Stras just didn't have a feel for the pitch today.  We can see that two of the six curveballs he threw were pretty close to middlle-middle.  Another missed well off the plate up and away to a lefty.  He also bounced one.  Just two ended up near the bottom of the zone where you want the pitch (when you're trying to throw it for a strike).

All in all, Strasburg didn't have his usual P2K day on Friday.  Most of the eight hits (all singles) he allowed weren't hard hit balls.  His defense let him down a bit in the third inning, but that's one of the risks you run when you're giving up a lot of contact.  He didn't have a bad game, but he was off just enough and the bats weren't able to bail him out.

Ian Desmond

When the team scores two runs (both on solo homers), you can't pin a loss on one guy.  Desmond came up in the two highest leverage spots of the game (5.33 and 4.76 on the Leverage Index) and struck out both times, though.  While the one that obviously stands out (bases loaded, 2 outs, sixth inning) was the first of those two at bats, the second one was more troubling to me.  Strickland overpowered him in the sixth.  He whiffed on the first 98 MPH fastball, watched a second at 99 to fall behind in the count 1-2, and then couldn't catch up to a 100 MPH heater in on his hands.  Sometimes you just get beat.

The eighth inning at bat was pretty inexplicable.  Like myself, most of you reading this have watched Ian Desmond for years.  He has great power.  He has great speed.  He swings out of his shoes on most pitches and strikes out a lot.  More than anything, though, Desmond loves to swing at the first pitch.  While this has irritated me at times, I've come to accept it.  I've made my fair share of cracks about him swinging at that first pitch fastball even though the pitch ends up being a slider in the dirt.  It is what it is.  That's Desi's game.  He swings at the first pitch an awful lot and he's very successful at it.  How successful is he?

2014 81 34 9 1 3 .420 .420 .667
Career 451 172 42 4 10 .381 .385 .559

Take those numbers with a grain of salt, of course.  This only accounts for those instances where he puts the ball in play on the first pitch.  All of those first pitch swings and misses (or foul balls) don't show up here.  However, when he puts the ball in play on the first pitch (which he did in 12.5% of his PA this season), he's a .420 hitter.

So... Desmond comes up in the 8th inning with LaRoche on first and Rendon on second with one out in the inning.  He's facing Sergio Romo, who has made his living on his slider.  Per Pitchf/x, Romo threw his slider 50.8% of the time and his fastball, which averaged 88 MPH, 36.1% of the time this season.  Here's the AB:

The first pitch was that fastball he usually hunts on the first pitch.  It wasn't right down the middle, but it was about belt high on the outer half.  He stared at it.  He then proceeded to chase the next two pitches (Romo's wipeout slider) that ended up well out of the zone.

I'm not knocking Desmond.  They wouldn't be in this position without him.  He's a heck of a hitter who is a vital part of the Washington Nationals.  That said, he had a really bad day.

Grading out Matt Williams

I said in yesterday's column that the Nats were probably going to have a disadvantage with the managers in this series.  Williams had a couple of chances to make an impact on this game.  Let's see what happened with some of his key decisions.

1) Let Adam LaRoche remain in the game to face Javier Lopez with 2 on and 2 out in the 6th

If Ryan Zimmerman is on the bench, this may be the ideal situation to use him.  The Nats trailed 2-0 at the time.  LaRoche hit .204/.284/.334 against LHP this season.  Lopez is a LOOGY who limited LHH to a .190/.248/.290 triple slash line this year, but doesn't handle RHH particularly well.  As the game was heading towards the late innings, the Nats had the tying run(s) on base with two outs.  Williams stuck with LaRoche and was rewarded with a five pitch walk.

2) Went to Craig Stammen in the seventh inning with the Nats trailing 2-0

Hindsight is 20/20, but there was a fair amount of first-guessing on twitter when Stammen came in for the seventh inning.  With the Nats trailing 2-0 and the Giants having already gone to the bullpen, you want to keep that score right where it is.  Stammen has been a good reliever for the Nats for quite some time, but he allowed five runs without recording an out in his final regular season appearance.  Entering the postseason, Stammen looked like he might be more likely to get in a higher leverage situation than Rafael Soriano, but that's about it.

The Giants had their 2-3-4 hitters (Panik, Posey, Sandoval) due up and you want to go to one of your best relievers here.  Given the way the Giants lineup sets up (they started 2 RHH, 1 switch hitter, and 5 LHH today), it might have been an excellent time for some outside the box thinking.  Tyler Clippard doesn't have to pitch the eighth.  He would have been set up to face Panik, Posey, and Sandoval here.  That group includes two of the Giants' three best hitters (Pence bats after Sandoval).  Once Clippard cuts through that group, the Giants would have had three straight lefties due up before their pitcher for the eighth inning (which Matt Thornton pitched anyway).

Stammen gave up a rocket to Panik on a 1-1 fastball  down the middle.  It carried to the wall in the left-center field gap and bounced off of Denard Span's glove for a leadoff triple.  Posey went on to drive him in with a single off of Stammen's glove to make it 3-0.  That run ended up being the difference in the game.

3) Using Ryan Zimmerman to bat for the pitcher in the 7th inning with the bases empty and 1 out trailing 3-2

There was some debate in the postgame thread about this.  I think it was the right call.  Given that the pitcher's spot came up with 2 out in the ninth and the Nats used Danny Espinosa, it's easy to second guess.  For me, you take the shot at the time.  The Nats were trailing by one run (Zim represented the tying run) with one out.  The Nationals had already hit two home runs in that inning against Hunter Strickland, so he was looking a bit vulnerable.  Zimmerman isn't only the batter on the bench most likely to hit a home run to tie the game.  He is also the most likely hitter on the bench to reach base in front of the top of the order.

While there was a reasonably good chance that the pitcher's spot would come up again (two players would have had to reach base from that point in the game on, which is exactly what ended up happening), there were too many other variables at play to ensure Williams would have this big a spot to use Zimmerman in.
  • The Giants had six outs to try and build on their lead.  If Williams had saved Zimmerman in the 7th inning so that he could use him with 2 out and nobody on in the 9th inning and the Giants had pushed across another run to make it 4-2, we'd be asking why he didn't bat in the 7th when it was a one run game.
  • The Nats could have plated a run (or more) before the pitcher's spot came up again and Zimmerman could have ended up batting in a lower leverage situation with the lead.
  • The spot could have never come back around, meaning Williams could either pinch hit Zimmerman for one of his starting position players (where he wouldn't have gained as much of an edge) or not at all.  They did need two runners to reach base for the spot to come up.  While that's only two baserunners, the Giants were about to use their two (three if you want to count Affeldt) relief aces.
Furthermore, while Strickland showed today that he can really bring the heat (100 MPH!), he's not Sergio Romo (2.51 career ERA in 7 big league seasons).  He's not Santiago Casilla (3.20 career ERA in 11 big league seasons, including a 1.70 ERA this year).  Those guys are the top two relievers on the Giants.  Hunter Strickland is further down the depth chart.  This was an opportunity for Williams to take a shot with his best bench bat in a high leverage situation where the Giants had their fourth or fifth best reliever on the mound.

I think you take the shot there, rather than save the bullet in case a bigger situation arises.  It's similar to playing an extra inning game on the road.  There's no real sense in saving your closer for a save situation that may never occur.  I loved the call by Williams here, even if it didn't work out.

4) Using Danny Espinosa as the pinch hitter with 2 outs in the 9th

I'll side with Williams again here.  His other options at this point were Kevin Frandsen and Jose Lobaton.  We all know that Espinosa (.183/.241/.291) isn't good against RHP.  The fact of the matter is that Frandsen (.236/.293/.299) and Lobaton (.235/.299/.333) aren't particularly good against them either.  While one of the other two guys may have given Williams a slightly better chance at extending the game to Span, I think that the other two options were unlikely enough to reach so that you use the guy who is most likely to run into one and hit it into the bullpen.  That's Espinosa, who has the highest ISO against RHP both this year (.108) and in his career (.149) among the three.  While Espinosa has always struggled to hit for average batting left-handed, 40 of his 55 career HR are from the left side.

Babe Descalso watch

I know that most of you hate that other guy more, but Descalso was the player who bugged me most in the 2012 playoffs.  A .243/.313/.341 lifetime hitter with 10 HR in 1223 AB as a utility infielder, Daniel "Babe" Descalso hit .316/.333/.684 with 2 HR, a double, and (of course) the game-tying hit in Game 5 during that series two years ago.  I will not re-hash those numbers again this postseason, but I will name the Giants Babe Descalso of Game 1.

Joe Panik probably has a slightly higher ceiling than Descalso.  He looks like he at least has a future as a big league starter rather than sticking in a backup role like Descalso.  Panik hit .305/.343/.368 this season for the Giants in 287 PA.  That's a great average, but he hasn't really shown much power.  He hit just 1 HR (off of Doug Fister in Nats Park, because, why not) in the majors to go along with 5 in AAA.  He had a .063 ISO in the major leagues this season as 69 of his 82 hits were singles.

Mr. Panik hit two balls to the warning track in Friday's game, one of which Denard Span couldn't corral with a leaping attempt at the wall.  He also came through with a big RBI single for the Giants in the third inning that was one of the few singles that Strasburg allowed that was actually smoked.  If the Giants had ten hard hit balls today (haven't found the research to back it up, but that number feels like it might be a bit high), Panik hit three of them.  He is my inaugural winner of the Babe Descalso award.  Let's hope I don't have to give this award to anyone other than, say, Kevin Frandsen for the remainder of the playoffs.