Washington Crossing the Delaware.

August 1, 2017



In 1851, Emanuel Leutze created one of the most iconic paintings of American folklore: “Washington Crossing the Delaware”. It shows a determined and steadfast General Washington leading an army of boats across the treacherously iceberg-y river on his way to surprise the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton. It is the meta-portrayal of how Americans have come to see our first President. The only thing is: it’s not historically accurate and honestly, not even that close.


First of all, when the Delaware River freezes, it looks like sheets of ice across the water, not mini-icebergs. Second, much of the army that actually crossed the river was integrated, so there would have been more people of color in the boat, which in the painting were about half the size of the actual ones used. The ones they used were primarily purposed for carrying lumber, grain and ore so there were no seats in them. And lastly, it is likely that Washington didn’t ride across in the first wave. They started crossing the river in the evening around 6 PM and didn’t complete the crossing until about 4 AM. What would have happened if the boats got stuck in the ice floe? Surely, Washington would never have risked being so exposed in the middle of a river until he was sure they were all going to get across.


So why is this relevant to baseball? Because there’s a myth that GM Mike Rizzo has somehow saved the Nationals post-season aspirations by acquiring three relievers over the last several weeks and that now the Nats are in great shape to make a post-season run.


It’s no secret that the Nationals needed bullpen help. They were on a pace to set the record for the worst bullpen ERA of any post-season team in history. That’s not exactly a confidence builder at a time of year when bullpens often determine who moves on. And even though Madson, Doolittle and Kintzler will help the situation by winnowing out the chaff, they aren’t exactly lock-down. Madson has been good in the playoffs but Doolittle’s results have been mixed at best. Kintzler has never pitched there. The problem is that the decision which pitcher to trust in critical situations has been left to Dusty Baker, whose decision-making, particularly in the playoffs and with bullpen usage, has been head-shakingly awful.  He’s been the orchestrator of some of the most epic collapses in post-season history:


1)      taking Russ Ortiz out in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series despite having given up only 2 runs through 6.1 innings and needing only one win to bring a championship to San Francisco. The bullpen then gave up four runs to force a Game 7.

2)      bringing in Kyle Farnsworth (predominantly a flyball/strikeout pitcher for the first 6 years of his career) when he needed a groundball in the 8th inning of Game 6 of the 2002 NLCS (the Bartman game) when he had Antonio Alfonseca (groundball rate of 58%, which was 11th best out of 254 qualified relievers from 2001-2005 ) waiting in the pen. A groundball double play (to one of the better infield defenses in the league) would have kept the game tied. As it turned out, the Marlins scored five more runs in the inning, effectively ending any chance the Cubs had of winning the game. Alfonseca was used later in the game and induced two groundballs, including a double play.

3)      and last year taking Max Scherzer out of do-or-die Game 5 after giving up only one run on a solo home run that came on a pitch that was well outside and away.  Baker then proceeded to use five relievers that inning to record 3 outs. They gave up three more runs and the series.  


Dusty Baker does a lot of things managers are supposed to do well. I don’t know that there is any manager in baseball who keep his players on an even keel as well as Baker, and that is incredibly valuable especially over the course of a long regular season. But in the post-season, decision-making is the key aspect of managing - especially the bullpen - and Baker has proven many times that he simply isn’t up to that task. Going into this season, National’s management had to understand that they needed a lock-down closer, one pitcher who nobody had any question that he would be the guy to get the job done in the 9th inning so that Baker would not have to make a decision which guy to use. There were several available this winter and Rizzo – whether it was due to constraints placed on him by ownership or simply not feeling the urgency – whiffed on all of them. Granted, Melancon turned out to be a bust this season due to injury and it was always though that Jansen wanted to return to the Dodgers so I don’t fault the Nats for failing to acquire them. But Holland and Chapman were available to sign and it was rumored that Colome was available in trade so it’s not as though their hands were completely tied.


Still, the bullpen going forward was not the only concern. After Scherzer and Strasburg, the Nationals have real question marks in the rest of their rotation. Gio Gonzalez has been solid this season but he’s about as consistent as they come when it comes to failing in the playoffs. He has never pitched past the fifth inning in any of his post-season starts – despite being staked to a six-run lead once – and has never demonstrated a great deal of fortitude when it comes to adversity. Tanner Roark’s results have been mixed and Edwin Jackson – the definition of journeyman - is currently holding down the fifth spot. Both Gonzalez and Jackson have playoff starts in which they’ve walked at least 7 opposing hitters. That’s not the way to win a win-or-go-home game.  


Sure, teams have advanced to and won the World Series with only one or two good starters but in almost every case that team has had a great bullpen. The Nationals simply do not. They can not afford for their third starter in any series to only give them four innings. But that’s very likely what they will get out of those choices.  There were quality starters available at the deadline and the Nats did not display any urgency to acquire any of them. It’s still possible that a Justin Verlander could pass through waivers and the Nats make a deal for him, but he’s about the only pitcher with a post-season pedigree that also has enough salary baggage to keep teams from claiming him before the Nats can make a play. The question is: will they?  


So despite having one of the bets offenses in recent memory when they are healthy, along with a standout defense, it seems likely that this Nationals team will suffer yet another first round exit, their fourth in the last six years. There’s a new commercial that talks about how failure often drives success, that those who fail learn from their mistakes and work even harder to overcome adversity. With the Nationals, it appears they are content trying the same formula over and over and over and expecting a different result. As it was in 1776, Washington appears to be in for another cold winter.