It’s time to revive Federal Baseball’s version of the Laurel and Yanny debate. With the win on Thursday, the Washington Nationals either pulled off an impressive five-game sweep over the Philadelphia Phillies or completed two four-game sweeps.
With a rescheduled game from earlier in the season creating a doubleheader on Tuesday, the Nats had an opportunity to clinch a postseason berth in the nightcap. Not only did they do that, but they also eliminated the Phillies in the first game. That was a pretty good day.
Here are the main takeaways from the five-game series...
Rocking around the clinch-mas Trea
That pun was right on a tee and far too tempting. Sorry. The point still stands though. As mentioned in the intro, the Nationals were able to officially clinch their postseason berth.
On Tuesday, the Nats took both games from the Phillies, finishing the second game off at 10:12pm. While the celebrations were going on, the big screen at the ballpark switched over to catch the final out of the Chicago Cubs’ loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Kyle Schwarber’s groundout sparked jubilant scenes at Nationals Park with the hosts knowing they were heading back to the postseason for the first time since 2017 under Dusty Baker.
“What these guys went through all year, man it’s unbelievable,” a clearly emotional Dave Martinez told Alex Chappell on-field after the game. “I’m proud of every one of them and it’s not over, we’re not over. We’re going to stay in it. We’re going to stay in the fight.”
In the end, the decisive moment in the game in D.C. was a go-ahead grand slam from Trea Turner. The shortstop has been one of the team’s catalysts since he came back from injury just before they went on their odds-defying run to the postseason.
“I think we always believed and we knew it was going to be a possibility,” the shortstop said after the clincher. “But to finally see other people see it as well it’s nice, so gotta keep doing what we’re doing, playing great and we’ll see.”
After their 19-31 start to the season, the players inside the clubhouse took on a mentality of how, at the end of the season, they were going to look back on the things that were said at that time and laugh and make their critics eat their words, fueling their rise up the standings.
Though the Nats can’t relax with home-field advantage in the Wild Card Game up for grabs over the weekend, they had a moment to deservedly celebrate their achievement on Tuesday.
Doo more of that
Even though the Nationals trotted out their hangover lineup on Wednesday, with both Turner and Anthony Rendon getting a well-deserved break, they were still able to grind out a win against the reeling Phillies. That win was locked down by Sean Doolittle.
Coming into that appearance, though the results were good for Doolittle since returning from the IL — holding a 1.50 ERA in that time — the peripherals painted a lucky picture.
In September, he had only struck out four hitters in six innings, which came with plenty of warning-track fly balls. The velocity and movement on his fastball were still down from when he was one of the best relievers in baseball in 2018. But on Wednesday, that all changed.
Protecting a three-run lead in the ninth, he proceeded to strike out the side, only allowing one hit in the process. His fastball was straight into the mid-90s and had the spin back to get it to rise that made hitters look uncomfortable when swinging.
“He looked really good,“ Martinez said after Wednesday’s game. “We’ll keep him right there. But the fastball is coming out, he looks good, he’s got some confidence, so that’s good.”
It wasn’t just the fact that he looked back to his old self though, he did it in the ninth inning too.
“He’s been pitching well,” Martinez said, “and today he closed out the game, which is huge for him confidence-wise, so that’s awesome for us as a club.”
If the Nationals are going to go deep into the postseason, they’re going to need Doolittle at full-tilt given the lack of other reliable options in the bullpen. This appearance against the Phillies might’ve been the best sign yet that he can recapture that form this October.
Hugs for Stras
With no official decision on who will start the Wild Card Game for the Nationals, Stephen Strasburg continues to put forward an interesting case as he could potentially be on normal rest for that game if they choose to go with him over Max Scherzer.
In the series finale, Strasburg went six dominant innings, allowing just one run on four hits and one walk while striking out double-digits for the seventh time this season.
“Stras did a great job again today, gave us six strong, we scored some runs,” Martinez said after the start.
His teammates definitely appreciated his hard work on Thursday. After the right-hander came out, the entire bench swarmed him for the most awkward-looking group hug ever.
He was taken out with just 92 pitches thrown, which may have raised an eyebrow or two, but it seemed as though there was good reason for pulling him perhaps an inning early.
“He’s got a slight cramp in his hamstring,” Martinez said. “I told him he was done, that was it. He said he felt fine, but I said why chance it? So he’s all good. It was just a cramp.”
There’s a chance that this could’ve been his last start for the Nationals if he doesn’t start the Wild Card Game and then opts out of his current deal this winter. If it is, then he’s had an incredible ride, establishing himself as one of the better pitchers of his generation.
Suzuki still not starting
You know it was a good series for the Nats when figuring out what to put for the final two sections of the recaps is such a chore. In a five-game sweep in which seemingly everything goes right — even the bullpen, for once — that job gets even harder.
With that in mind, perhaps the only slight concern to come out of this series was that Kurt Suzuki still didn’t manage to start a game, though he was able to pinch-hit on Thursday.
“I had a long conversation with Suzuki and Paul [Lessard] last night,” Martinez said before Tuesday’s doubleheader. “He’s about 70-75% right now, and he’s progressing, so I’d rather not push the envelope right now. Hopefully, by Friday or Saturday, he’ll be ready to catch.”
Martinez did confirm before Thursday’s game that the expectation is still for Suzuki to catch in the next day or two, meaning he should be ready to go in time for the postseason. That should at least give him a few at-bats to get back in the rhythm of things.
Thankfully, Yan Gomes has been able to step up and then some in the absence of Suzuki, taking his play to another level. That’s given Suzuki time to fully recover without the fear of rushing him back and aggravating the injury, which was the right thing to do.
Soto and Rendon slumping?
File this under “might be something, might be nothing,” but both Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon appear to be slowing down a little from the torrid pace they’ve set most of the year.
The team’s three and four hitters, who have been one the main reasons they are even in the postseason, combined for just two hits in 20 at-bats this series. In fairness, they did draw a combined, and somewhat remarkable, 12 walks in the series too.
It’s not just this series though, both slumps have been going on for a little while. Since September 9th, Rendon has slashed just .173/.366/.327 while Soto has a slash line of .146/.358/.250 in the same time.
The silver lining is that both of these slash lines come with unsustainable BABIPs, with Rendon’s at .163 and Soto’s at .171 in that time, meaning a rebound is coming.
Also, as the OBP shows, they also both continue to draw their walks, posessing higher walk rates than strikeout rates since September 9th. The issue is that, when hitting third and fourth, they’re paid to get hits and drive in runs, not just get on base. Sorry, Brad Pitt.
Maybe it’s a good sign that the team is 11-6 in that stretch with their two best hitters not contributing as much and finding other ways to score runs and win ballgames. It’s something to keep an eye on in this final series to see if they get back to themselves.
Next up: The Nationals, with Wild Card spot in hand, will now get ready to face the Cleveland Indians in their final regular season series of the season. Austin Voth and Patrick Corbin are set to open the series, with the starter of the final game of the season still to be decided.