Crunch time for Nats after Jayson Werth saves the season

Jayson Werth delivers the shot heard ’round D.C. (photo by Bob Youngentob)

In my preview of the series, I pointed out there was only one day of anticipation before the Nationals took their bow in the postseason. Well now it’s come down to a day of worry, anxiety and what-ifs before we learn if the dream ends tonight.

The starting pitching has been erratic at times, in keeping with much of the rest of the year. So far, the four starters have a combined line of 19 IP/19 H/11 ER/11 BB, giving them an ERA 5.21 of and a WHIP of 1.58. That is a small sample size, of course, but with the season-long figures for the same starters of 3.30 and 1.18, it seems things haven’t quite been working how they might have.

Friday night, it all comes down to Gio Gonzalez again. I won’t repeat everything I said about him in my previous post, but needless to say he is going to have to give a different display to Sunday, when he recorded a line of 5 IP/1 H/2 ER/7 BB. That was a season-high for walks, but on the three previous occasions this year when he walked five, the average number of walks in his next start was less than two. There’s a stat for you to ponder.

The undoubted success of the series for the Nationals so far has been the bullpen. From the moment Ryan Mattheus came into game one after Craig Stammen had loaded the bases and got out of it unscathed on two pitches to Thursday night when Jordan Zimmermann and Tyler Clippard each struck out the side before Drew Storen put the Cardinals away in the ninth, the relievers have been on great form. While we’re talking about game-changers, how about by Ian Desmond’s running-over-the-shoulder-diving catch to get the last out in the top of the ninth?

The offense still hasn’t sparked to life yet, despite Jayson Werth’s heroics last night. The Nationals have scored nine runs in the series on 28 hits, only six going for extra bases (four of those being home runs). In the first three games, they were 3-for-24 with RISP, and didn’t even manage to get anyone into position to have a shot at improving that stat on Thursday. The only two bright points at the plate have been Desmond, who is hitting .467 and has one quarter of all the Nationals’ hits, and Adam LaRoche, who may only have two hits, but has sent both of them out of the park. Bryce Harper isn’t swinging a good bat so far, going 1-for-18 and striking out six times.

The bats continue to swing too much without making enough contact. During the regular season, only Pittsburgh, Houston and Oakland struck out more than the Nationals, and already in this series, they have gone down that way 35 times. No surprise that Danny Espinosa leads the way with six, having finished third in the regular-season rankings for most strikeouts. Werth and Harper also have fanned six times, with Ryan Zimmerman only one back. One of the features of the club at the start of the season was the patience they showed at the plate, which led to the opposition throwing more pitches early in games. They need to rekindle that patience if they want to go all the way.

So, now for tonight (or tomorrow morning for us in the UK, a 1:37 a.m. start to be exact). What do the Nats need to do to take the series and go on to face the Giants? Well, Gonzalez needs to pitch well, and they need to wake up the bats. Sounds obvious, but that’s what they’ve been doing most of the year. I think we’ll know within the first two innings how this one is going to go. If Gonzalez can find his location and the top of the order can get something going early, the crowd will be jumping and the Nats will be in business.

But if you could guarantee it was going to end well, I’d happily take a nervous game like we had last night. The way these playoffs have gone so far, who would bet against another walk-off? Whatever happens, we’ll all be watching, whatever time of the night (or morning) it ends.

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