Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Anatomy of a Collapse

            What I want to figure out is, how did a team like the Washington Nationals lose a six-run lead at home in the deciding game of the first playoff series in the history of their franchise (and the city’s first since 1933).  My friends who watch baseball and I were watching the game that night, and later keeping tabs on it from our phones at the bar, and as we were watching it- rooting for the Nats- we felt this impending sense of doom that the Cardinals comeback was just inevitable.  In fact, I was sitting there just before we were trying to leave for the bar (with our two other friends who aren’t so big on sports), and I pretty much had to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the house.  The clincher was Mike saying “Look, the Cardinals are going to come back, and you don’t want to be here to watch the end of that.”  I knew it was true.  The greater knowledgeable world of baseball knew it was true.  The biggest shock leading up to the last inning was that the Nats had actually tacked on an extra run, which gave us some fleeting hope.  But is a two-run lead safe when facing the Cardinals?  Nope.  It’s like that team has the collective knowledge and experience of their franchise’s entire history- from the Gashouse Gang, to the Mad Dash, to Gibson, to Herzog and the Wizard, and even last year with the Rally Squirrel and Happy Flight (which I guess was also a thing).
            I’ve always railed against those fans who say, “I shouldn’t have gotten invested” because I feel like there’s a reason we get invested in sports.  Or at least if you’re not then just don’t be a sports fan.  But I’ve also found that it helps the healing process a little to be able to explain it.  And maybe in the course of the explanation, one says things like “I should have seen this coming” or “I should have known”. But in wanting to believe that sports will continue to surprise you, there’s a reason you didn’t let yourself know.  That doesn’t always mean the surprise is going to be a pleasant one.  This whole experience for fans of the Nats and just those rooting for them in the meantime should not have been a huge surprise, as it seems like collapses like this do happen in baseball, more than you might expect.  And so what I want to try to understand is why.
            Part of it is just the odds involved in getting out to a lead in the series.  Baseball is a game of inches, and when you get out to even a one game lead with 2 games to go, simply by plugging away and hoping you can take one.  But to settle at that would be to ignore just how resilient this Cardinals team is.  They won Game 6 of the World Series last year down to their last out and down two.  They won the Play In Wild Card Game on the road against an Atlanta team that finished five games ahead of them and got the benefit of the worst baseball call probably since 1985 (paging Don Denkinger).  And then this.  So they clearly know how to strike against teams that aren’t going to put them away.
            Trying not to completely ignore for a second that the Nationals are relative newbies to the postseason, there’s a lot they did to shoot themselves in the foot in Game 5.  Having gotten a six run lead in the early goings, the case could be made that they didn’t do enough to extend their lead.  They didn’t score again until the eighth, and by that point the Cards had already made it a one-run game.  Though there was a rally or two, the Nationals’ hitters seemed a bit too easy on the St. Louis pitchers and seemed to really get themselves out.  But Washington was playing at home and had the crowd and the momentum behind them.  And I understand that it’s an easy pattern to fall into, because when you’re that close to a series win, you just root for the innings to go by faster, no matter what that means. Plus, if you’re the Cardinals, it’s probably easier to pitch when your teams losing by a lot.
            But I think the biggest mistake was in how the Nationals pitched the Cardinals.  Gio Gonzalez could not seem to get a batter out, and needed to be relieved in the 6th.  In that respect, they need to still treat their starter like it’s the last game of the season and they need a win.  That being said, he may have deserved it.  The Cards just kept putting it in play and making things happen, and the Nationals played like they were going to get themselves out.  This was all capped off by Ian Desmond’s just-miss of a grounder that would have ended the game.   Those are plays that just need to be made in a championship season.  Every season has one, and last year it was Nelson Cruz not running through that fly ball in St. Louis.  If they’re made, you have the Jeter Flip play or Kirby Puckett’s The Catch in Game Six of the 1991 Series.  Even Willie Mays’s original The Catch in the 1954 World Series.  But suffice it to say, sometimes not being able to make that play is where your team is done in.  There seemed to be just too many plays the Cardinals made and that the Nationals didn’t.