The National Nightmare
October 15, 2012

I wasn't a fan of Drew Storen before Friday night.  Even the year the Nationals drafted him I thought they should have drafted someone else.  He had trouble with the long ball even in college and there were plenty of really good high school talents to take that season like Shelby Miller or Tyler Matzek... or one Mike Trout.  But after Friday night, I am a Drew Storen fan.  He stood at his locker after the Nationals had blown a 6-run lead in Game 5 of the NLDS and accepted the blame for the team's loss.  Many Nationals fans are calling for GM Mike Rizzo to trade him because they feel like their epic collapse is too much for one man to bear.  But that would be completely unfair to Storen, especially since very little of the fault lay with him.

First of all, home plate umpire Alfonzo Marquez refused to call his slider for a strike.  Three times Storen nailed the strikezone with it and three times Marquez stood there like a bump on a log.  One of the sliders was so buried in the Pitch Trak strikezone that it would be nearly impossible geometrically to throw a pitch that was more in the strikezone.  Once Cardinal hitters realized that, they stopped swinging at his primary outpitch and just waited on the fastball.  People often say that as long as an umpire calls the strikezone the same way for both teams it is fair, but that's really pretty insipid.  For example, suppose an umpire doesn't call curveballs for a strike for anyone.  He has depth perception problems or had a bad experience or whatever, but simply doesn't call the deuce.  If one team has a pitcher who throws lots of curveballs and the other team doesn't have anyone who throws the curve, which team has the advantage?  The umpire is calling the game the same way for both teams, yet one team has very little chance of winning.  The other problem with this thinking is that it makes an excuse for someone to not adjudicate the game the way it was intended.  They wrote the rules for a particular reason; it's the umpire's job to call and enforce them.  If he is incapable of doing that, he's in the wrong job.  I am mystified by people who advocate advanced metrics and the introduction of science and technology into the game, but reject those same advancements being applied to the adjudication of the game.  The technology is available to get these calls right.  It's time the humans either get it right, or we bring in the robots.  The game deserves to have the contest decided only by the players and managers. 

But I am not going to lay the blame for the Nationals loss squarely on Marquez' shoulders.  He certainly influenced the outcome, but there was plenty of blame to go around.  For example, Davey Johnson had the option of walking Pete Kozma with two outs and men on second and third after the Cardinals had tied the game.  Had he walked Kozma, that would have pitted Storen against Cardinal closer Jason Motte who was due up next for the third out.   Relievers are notoriously awful at two things - holding runners and hitting, and Motte is no exception even though he began his career as a catcher.  There's a good reason he became a pitcher: he was a career .191 hitter in the minors.  Since Marquez wasn't calling Storen's slider for strikes, the least Davey Johnson could have done was let him face a hitter who couldn't hit his fastball.  The only response Cardinal manager Mike Matheny would have had would be to take his closer out of the game and let his back-up catcher, Tony Cruz, take the at bat.  Either way, Storen would have been facing an inferior hitter, not that Kozma is that great in real life.  He's a career .236 hitter in the minors but ever since he was called up he's been hitting like the second coming of Honus Wagner.  So really Johnson's decision should have been obvious - walk the hot hitter to face either the closer or the back-up catcher, neither of which pose much threat to drive in the go-ahead runs and if the other guy opts for the pinch hitter, your team gets to face an inferior pitcher in the bottom of the inning with a chance to win with the game still tied.  Instead, Davey hung Storen out to dry.

There were other players more at fault than Storen as well.  Tyler Clippard threw a change-up to Daniel Descalso, a hitter incapable of handling a good fastball.  The change-up was the only pitch Descalso could hurt him on and Clippard threw it anyway.  Edwin Jackson kept burying fastballs right in the heart of the zone until he realized that the Cardinals would swing at every slider he threw, regardless if they were in the strikezone or not.  Unfortunately, he didn't realize this until they had already scored a run off him.  But I would say the biggest goat of the game was Gio Gonzalez.  He was arguably the staff ace, especially with Strasbutg out for the post-season.  By any standard he was one of the two or three best starters in the National League this year and might very well walk away with the Cy Young award after the postseason concludes.   The Nationals offense had staked him to a 6-run lead and he gave half of it back in less than an inning.  Had CC Sabathia or Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw or any other staff ace blown such a lead in a crticial game, that's all the annoucers and the postgame analysts would have been talking about.  Why Gonzalez gets a pass I have no idea, other than it gave them a chance to prattle on about the Strasburg decision some more.  Of the 37 pitches he threw in the 5th inning, only 16 were for strikes and only 11 of those were fouls or balls in play.  When your team only needs innings to win the game, that kind of performance is inexcuseable.  With an easy lead and nothing to do but  throw strikes in order to win, he pitched himself out of the game and left the final four innings to the bullpen.  That is why the Nationals lost.  Yet Drew Storen accepted the blame.  It is that kind of character that Storen displayed that championship teams are made of. 

So where do the Nationals go from here?  Fortunately, they still have a very good core of players and pitchers, and next year they'll get a full season from Strasburg. Still, it's hard to improve on a team that had the best record in baseball despite enduring significant injuries to their left fielder, their right fielder, their shortstop, their third baseman and two catchers.  Clearly, they need some more quality depth in the bullpen particularly from the left side.  They don't need to make any changes at the back-end; Storen and Clippard are fine closing out games.  Edwin Jackson's contract is up and pitched well enough to earn a hefty raise from some other team.  He's a fine regular season pitcher but his lack of pitching instincts really reveals itself in the post-season and the Nationals need to be focusing on players who will perform under the kleiglights of October.  Adam LaRoche's contract is also up, but the Nationals should do as much as they can to retain him.  First, he is a solid left-handed bat for a line-up that is primarily right-handed.  He's also a good glove at first base and performed well down the stretch.  In short, he's the kind of complimentary piece the Nationals need to keep.  As for acquisitions, I am hoping Mike Rizzo targets BJ Upton to play centerfield.  He's an excellent fielder and possesses the kind of speed and power that makes scouts drool over his potential.  That would also move Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth to the corners, giving the Nationals the most athletic outfield in baseball and three outfield arms on which no one in their right mind would try to take an extra base.  The downside is that would mean the departure of fan favorite Mike Morse, but his skillset was readily replaced by farm product Tyler Moore while he was on the shelf.  Package Morse and toolsy second baseman Danny Espinosa, both of whom are under reasonable contracts (Morse is signed through 2013, Espinosa is a year away from arbitration), for a starting pitcher with potential.  Both the Oakland A's and possibly the Colorado Rockies could be interested in an upgrade at second base, and Morse's power should play anywhere.  From those teams, Brett Anderson and Juan Nicasio are both coming off significant injuries but have tremendous upside.  Another possibility could be the Boston Red Sox who are probably in the market for a first baseman (Morse’s best defensive position) and a shortstop (Espinosa’s primary position in the minors).  While scouts rave about Jose Iglesias’ defense, his bat is nowhere near major league ready, so Espinosa could buy him a few years of development.  In return, the BoSox have several pitching options they could deal, both at the major and minor league levels. Steve Lombardozzi could take over the duties at second from Espinosa.  Although he doesn't have nearly the physical tools Espy does, he's actually a better fit for the line-up as he gets on base more and has the skills to become a pretty decent lead-off hitter allowing Jayson Werth to move back to his more natural 5-spot in the order.  The Nats have Brian Goodwin (outfielder) and Anthony Rendon (third base, shortstop, second base) within a year of being ready for their debuts so depth isn't a problem at either position. 

Whatever Mike Rizzo decides this winter, he knows he already has a team capable of making the post-season.  What he needs to find are more players who embrace that spotlight, who understand their responsibility in the moment rather than shrink under the heat.