The Nationals and Dodgers won more games than any other NL teams during the regular season, but on Tuesday night, both were sent packing by the underdogs in their respective Division Series. Both teams were outplayed by their opponents, with failures to produce up and down their respective lineups factoring into their defeats. But big managerial mistakes by Matt Williams and Don Mattingly loomed large as well.
For the Nationals, the biggest problem was that the team managed only nine runs in four games while hitting .164/.222/.258. Take away Bryce Harper — who went 5-for-17 with three doubles and a homer, single-handedly accounting for 15 of the team's 41 total bases — and that line drops to .148/.204/.183, worse than the average NL pitcher this year (.166/.215/.229). That raises the first question: Why did Williams bat Harper sixth for the entire series behind Denard Span, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond?
Granted, the 21-year-old prodigy didn't have his best season due to a hand injury that cost him two months and sapped his power; nonetheless, he hit .288/.359/.454 with a team-high 11 homers in the second half. While Span, Rendon and Werth were as hot or hotter in that timeframe, it would have made sense to move Harper up to third or fourth, particularly as the series continued and the offense flailed. As it was, Span went 2-for-19, Werth 1-for-17, and LaRoche 1-for-18, with singles their only base hits. None of them scored or drove in a run, and by amazing coincidence, all three of Harper's home runs were solo shots. He had only three plate appearances with runners in scoring position, going 0-for-2 with a walk.
Particularly given the lefty-swinging LaRoche's struggles in the series and in general against lefties (.204/.284/.336 this year, and that was an improvement on 2013), it would have made sense to start Ryan Zimmerman at first base in Game 3 against southpaw Madison Bumgarner. Then again, it wasn't clear the extent to which Zimmerman was healthy, and the fact remains that for all of the talk about giving him time at other positions to increase the team's flexibility, Zimmerman played just 18 innings at first during the season, only one of which came in September after his two-month stint on the disabled list.
The other option would have been to start him in leftfield, where he had gained more experience (30 games), with Span (.269/.337/.357 against lefties this year) sitting against Bumgarner and Harper shifting to center. That would have entailed a sizable defensive hit, however, and in a low-scoring series, it's more understandable why that option was bypassed. Still, the larger point remains that Williams didn't make a single adjustment to a lineup that was dying on the vine.
As for the pitching, Williams' decision to pull Jordan Zimmermann with two outs in the eighth inning of Game 2 was the turning point of the series, though it's tougher to fault him for that. Zimmermann had dominated the Giants, shutting them out on three hits through the first eight frames, but he had just issued his first walk of the day on his 100th pitch and was about to face Buster Posey — the Giants' best hitter and the owner of one of those hits — with two outs and the tying run on first base.
Given sabermetric research into quantifying way the advantage tilts to the batter the more times he sees a pitcher in a game — he's roughly 0.3 runs per nine worse each time through the order — it made sense to pull Zimmermann, however much emotional charge there may have been to keep him in. Williams called upon Drew Storen, who had pitched very well this year (1.12 ERA, 2.71 FIP) and had closed the season without allowing an earned run over his final 20 innings, claiming the closer role from the slumping Rafael Soriano in the process and converting all 10 of his save opportunities.
The move didn't work. Posey singled, sending Joe Panik to second base, and Pablo Sandoval followed with an RBI single that would have plated two runs had Posey not been thrown out at home. The game ended up dragging for 18 innings and a postseason record six hours, 23 minutes before the Giants could manage a run. Williams "kicked [himself]" after it went awry, but his process was understandable; as summarized by The Washington Post's James Wagner:
1) Williams wanted to give Zimmermann a chance at completing the game. His pitch count was only at 95 when he took the mound in the ninth and he had retired 20 straight batters before he walked Joe Panik. 2) Williams didn't want Zimmermann to face Posey if he was in trouble. Although the results didn't show it, Posey had hit the ball hard against Zimmermann. 3) Storen is the Nationals' closer, has done exceptionally well in that role and Williams had all the confidence in him to get one more out.
While the Nationals were able to stave off elimination with a Game 3 win, Williams' handling of his pitching staff in Game 4 with the sword of Damocles still hanging over his team's head raised other questions. Where he at least attacked the Game 2 situation with urgency, Williams was too passive this time around, and never got Storen, top set-up man Tyler Clippard or Stephen Strasburg — available in an emergency role, leaving Zimmermann to start Game 5 on four days' rest if necessary — into the game.
Williams allowed struggling starter Gio Gonzalez to bat for himself in the third inning after having allowed two runs during an admittedly strange sequence of events — a one-out single, his own misplay of a slow Juan Perez comebacker into an error, and then a failure to make a play on pitcher Ryan Vogelsong's sacrifice bunt, followed by a bases-loaded walk and a run-scoring infield grounder — in which the pitcher's own frustration likely exacerbated the damage. Gonzalez did manage to settle down and retire the next seven Giants he faced, but with an entire pitching staff at his disposal, Williams called upon fifth starter Tanner Roark as his first man out of the bullpen; he loaded the bases while getting two outs and then had to be rescued by lefty specialist Jerry Blevins' strikeout of Brandon Belt.
Blevins got through the sixth, and the Nationals tied the game at 2-2 on a monster home run by Harper. But instead of continuing with Blevins, who had thrown just 14 pitches, Williams used his other lefty, Matt Thornton, to start the seventh against lefties Gregor Blanco and Panik, then allowed him to face Posey, a righty with a career .333/.393/.578 line against lefties, after Panik hit a one-out single.
Posey singled, and only then did Williams call for a righty. But it was rookie Aaron Barrett who came in, not Clippard, Storen or Strasburg. With the season on the line, the righthander made a hash of things over the course of just 12 pitches. He walked Pence to load the bases, uncorked a wild pitch that scored the go-ahead run, and then threw another wild pitch while trying to issue an intentional walk to Sandoval; fortunately for the Nats, Posey was out at home on the play.
Out of lefties (ahem), Williams then called upon another righty to face Belt, but it was Soriano, he of the 7.02 ERA over the final quarter of the season; he retired Belt and was allowed to pitch the ninth, meaning that Williams got away with using his staff's 12th-best pitcher at a time when another run would have made the Nationals' comeback an even more daunting proposition.
In the wake of the defeat, Williams sounded like Ned Yost in his defiant defense of orthodoxy. From MLB.com:
"Because those are our seventh-inning guys," said Williams. "That's how we set this up. We had two lefties [Gregor Blanco and Joe Panik] at the top of the inning, and if we got to the righties [Buster Posey and Pence], we were going to go with Barrett. That's what he's done for us all year long.
"They got a couple of base hits and the wild pitch did us in. You know, that's the way the game goes sometimes, and I'm proud of the way they have gone about it this year, and they should be, too. We're certainly not going to use our closer in the seventh inning. So that's why we went with it."
Barrett was one of Williams' "seventh-inning guys," as though rigid typecasting meant more than the significance of the situation or the need to use the very best pitcher(s) at his disposal when a mistake might have cost him the game.
Williams' rough showing was a reminder that he, too, was just a rookie, having never managed a team at any level prior to this season, or even served as bench coach. Mattingly was once similarly green, though he did have experience as bench coach with the Yankees under Joe Torre, who mentored him both in New York and Los Angeles prior to Mattingly's taking the reins for the 2011 season. Despite his subsequent experience at the helm, he hardly covered himself in glory during the Dodgers' brief run.
The mistakes that loom the largest are his sticking with Clayton Kershaw for too long during a pair of seventh-inning rallies that proved fatal to the Dodgers' chances; not surprisingly, both of them came during the Cardinals' third time through the order against him. In Game 1, Kershaw led 6-1 and had yet to allow a hit on a ball in play before the Cardinals rapped out five singles over a span of six batters to start the seventh. Mattingly stuck with his flagging ace, who had lost his release point in pitching from the stretch for the first time all day. But after striking out Oscar Taveras, he served up a bases-clearing double to Matt Carpenter that gave the Cardinals a 7-6 lead.
For the series, Mattingly and his staff had selected a head-scratching assortment of relievers, of whom only closer Kenley Jansen and lefty J.P. Howell had his full trust, while he searched for alternatives to rightes Brian Wilson (4.66 ERA, 5.4 walks per nine) and Brandon League (2.57 ERA but 5.4 strikeouts and 3.9 walks per nine). For the remainder, he bypassed veterans Chris Perez and Paco Rodriguez — both of whom had pitched well in September after returning from DL stints, combining to allow one run while whiffing 12 in 10 2/3 innings — in favor of veteran Jamey Wright and two rookie righties, Pedro Baez and Carlos Frias, who had performed unevenly in limited usage down the stretch, plus lefty Scott Elbert, who had managed just 4 1/3 innings after returning from surgery.
General manager Ned Colletti, who spent over $32 million assembling this monstrosity (not including unhelpful late-season acquisitions), certainly can't escape blame. But it was Mattingly at the switch. In this critical situation in relief of Kershaw, he called upon Baez, whose first-pitch fastball was obliterated by Matt Holliday for a three-run homer and a 10-6 lead.
In Game 4, Mattingly pushed his luck with Kershaw once again. On three days rest and with 94 pitches on his arm, Kershaw started the seventh by yielding just his second and third hits of the game on hard-hit singles that ate up his middle infielders. He was then allowed to face lefty Matt Adams, who promptly cranked a three-run homer from which the Dodgers never recovered.
Kershaw can be faulted for his execution in both cases, and Mattingly's lack of confidence in the mediocrity of his bullpen — 12th in the league in ERA (3.76) and 14th in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.2) this year — wasn't entirely unmerited. But with nine outs to go to force a Game 5 matchup back in Los Angeles, he could have used Howell and Jansen, both capable of pitching more than one inning, to get him home. Granted, Howell himself had served up a big three-run homer to Carpenter in Game 2 and had stumbled down the stretch, but as a fresh pitcher, his odds were better against Adams, who notoriously does not hit lefties well (.190/.231/.298 in 130 PA this season with a .553 careeer OPS).
Mattingly's other big failure was his benching of Yasiel Puig in Game 4. Swayed more by the optics of Puig's seven straight strikeouts in Games 2 and 3 than by his three times on base in Game 1 or the fact that his triple had helped produce the Dodgers' only run in Game 3, Mattingly went with lefty Andre Ethier in his stead. That despite Ethier's performance against righties this year (.253/.325/.385), which couldn't touch that of Puig (.307/.384/.516) even with the latter lacking the platoon advantage.
Given so many failures to produce up and down the lineup — Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Dee Gordon and Juan Uribe had gone a combined 8-for-50 with an 18/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio and no shortage of short, poor at-bats in critical situations — it was a curious place to make a substitution. Playing Justin Turner at second for Gordon, who to that point was 2-for-13 with one walk, five strikeouts and zero runs scored, would have made more sense. Ethier did walk twice while going 0-for-2, but he snuffed out a rally by being picked off of third base in the sixth inning with hot-hitting A.J. Ellis at the plate. Puig never got to swing a bat, entering the game as a pinch-runner in the ninth inning when Ellis walked, but getting no further than second base with the tying run.
In the end, it matters little which of the two managers had the worse series; the Tigers' Brad Ausmus, saddled with a similarly thin rotation and equally unreliable bullpen, may have fared even worse while his team was swept out of the playoffs by the Orioles. But beyond the role of the two managers' GMs in assembling the roster — not to mention that the credit that their opponents deserve for defeating them — the larger point is that Mattingly and Williams are part of a recent trend of hiring former players with long resumes as major leaguers but little experience handling the in-game X's and O's.
The two skippers may have earned their keep in the leadership-of-men department, surmounting a variety of lineup and roster controversies without them derailing their seasons — the continuing adventures of the youthfully exuberant Harper and Puig, the placement of Zimmerman in and around his DL stint, the alignment of the Dodgers' overcrowded outfield. But under the glare of the postseason spotlight, their tactical weaknesses showed. Perhaps they'll learn from their mistakes, but it will take another 162-game grind before we'll see if they can give their teams the best chance to win when it matters most.