The Magic Poker Equation: The more crucial the hand of poker being played, the better the players’ hands are. — TV Tropes
1. The wild-card game
The Milwaukee Brewers’ greatest strength, if you had to narrow it down to one thing, was their closer, Josh Hader. The left-hander struck out 48% of the batters he faced this year, the fourth-highest rate in history. He had the lowest contact rate in baseball and the sixth-highest strike rate. He had 15 saves of more than one inning this year, the most by any pitcher in the past 15 years. He entered 52 games with a lead this year and the Brewers won 48 of them. This month he was named the National League’s best reliever.
And so, with the Washington Nationals’ season on the line, down two runs in the eighth inning of a win-or-go-home wild-card game, they were facing the Brewers’ absolute strength. But Hader also has a quirk. When he’s ahead in the count, he’s unhittable — batters have gone .079/.094/.158 against him over the past two years in such counts — but when he’s not, his dominance starts to fade away, even relative to other pitchers in the same counts. He gets wilder, he allows harder contact, he’s relatively prone to walks and homers — he is, in fact, no better than an average reliever.
Josh Hader threw 30 pitches that night in Washington. Only two were thrown while Hader was ahead in the count, as the Nationals patiently took wayward pitches early in counts and forced Hader to catch up. The Brewers’ closer hit a batter, walked a batter, allowed a bloop single and then a smashed single by Juan Soto, and by the end of the eighth the Nationals had a lead. There was no bottom of the ninth; a giant had been slayed.
2. The NLDS
The Los Angeles Dodgers’ greatest strength, if you had to name just one, was their depth, which gave them the ability to match up great lineups depending on the handedness of the pitcher. This was especially true against right-handers: Lefty Joc Pederson joined lefties Max Muncy, Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager at the top and in the heart of the order, and rookies Matt Beaty and Gavin Lux added left-handed power at the bottom. The Dodgers were the best offense in baseball against right-handed pitchers overall. In games started by right-handed pitchers, the Dodgers went 76-34, a 112-win pace over a full season and easily the best record in baseball in such games.
And so the Dodgers had the Nationals where they wanted them on Oct. 7, with a 2-1 lead in the five-game NLDS and, crucially, two Washington right-handers slated to start the next two games. But those two right-handers were not picked out of a hat but were, in fact, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
Scherzer, in Game 4, held the lefties in the lineup to three hits in 18 at-bats. He held the Dodgers to one run through the seventh, by which point the game was no longer close and the series was headed to a decisive fifth game.
Strasburg, in his start, was bruised by the lefties early — a leadoff double to Pederson and a homer to Muncy — but then he punched back. It was, technically, his worst postseason start, but it was still a quality one, six innings and three runs on the board. He kept the Nationals close, and eventually the Dodgers melted down. Another giant slayed.
3. The NLCS
The St. Louis Cardinals’ greatest strength, boiled down to a name, was Jack Flaherty. In the second half of the season, Flaherty started 15 games and allowed 10 earned runs — a 0.91 ERA, the second-lowest second-half ERA in the past 100 years.
The Cardinals had used him to start Game 5 of the NLDS, so by the time the Nationals faced him in the NLCS, Washington was already up two games to none. But the Cardinals had, at least, hope in Flaherty. If he pitched like he had for the previous three months, the Cardinals would get a win on the board — and, through two hitless innings, it looked like they had their savior.
And then Washington jumped him. They scored four in the third inning — as many runs as he had allowed in all of September, more than he had allowed in all of August — on a walk and four hits. Flaherty got just eight swinging strikes in the start, his fewest in a game since the first half of the season. When Flaherty’s turn to bat came in the top of the fifth inning, the Cardinals, desperate for offense to close the gap, pinch-hit for him, ending one of the great second halves ever in indignity. The Nationals won a blowout. Another giant slayed.
4. The World Series
The Houston Astros had nothing but strengths. The best offense in baseball, the second-best bullpen, by some measures the best team defense, the likely Rookie of the Year, perhaps the MVP, but if you had to pick just one, you’d pick two: Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. If Cole isn’t the best pitcher in the American League, Verlander is. They’re the best postseason 1-2 since at least the 2015 Dodgers (Kershaw and Greinke), or maybe the 2011 Phillies (Halladay and Lee), but probably the 2002 Diamondbacks (Johnson and Schilling). After the All-Star break, the Astros went 23-4 in games started by one of them. Their combined ERA in that time was 1.75. Cole’s second-half strikeout rate was the highest of all time; Verlander’s was third all time.
As this World Series began, the Astros had it all set up: Cole and Verlander would start the first two games at home. They would jump ahead 2-0. They might well sweep the Nationals after that, but if they didn’t, they’d have Cole and Verlander again later in the series.
And, of course, it was against those colossi that Washington did its best work.
In Cole’s first start, he allowed five earned runs, as many as he had in all of September. After getting 20 swinging strikes per start in the last month of the year, and 19 per start in his first three postseason outings, he got only 10 against the Nationals. In Verlander’s first start, he allowed four runs, matching his season high. The Nationals won both games, the first team to hang back-to-back losses on the Astros’ co-aces this year.
Cole won Game 5. But in Game 6, once again facing elimination against an opponent’s strength, and once again facing Verlander, the Nationals knocked him out in five innings, matching his shortest start of the year. The Nationals won again. The better the other team could offer, the better the Nationals played. They just kept winning.
The Nationals are the first team ever to knock off two postseason opponents who each won at least 105 games. They beat a 106-win Dodgers club that, by Baseball Prospectus’ third-order records, was the third-most talented in at least 70 years. They beat the 107-win Astros who, according to BP, were the very best.
At the start of this postseason, hardly anybody was saying the Nationals were the best team in the mix. And, truthfully, in the 25-man way of viewing baseball, in the 162-game way of measuring a team, they weren’t. Fernando Rodney and Matt Adams wouldn’t make these Astros or those Dodgers if you expanded the rosters to 50.
But what we saw over and over again was that the best Nationals players were better than the best of every other team. That’s how they kept doing this: The other team would turn to their very best in the biggest spot, they’d flip over their four kings, and the Nats would flip over their aces. The Nationals’ closer isn’t as good as Josh Hader — but Juan Soto is, and when Soto faced Hader he won. The Nationals’ left-handed hitters aren’t as good as the Dodgers’ are — but Max Scherzer is, and when he faced Bellinger and Muncy he won. Flaherty is better than most of the Nationals, but he’s not better than Anthony Rendon, who doubled home a run and scored another in that four-run inning. And on the right day, not even Cole or Verlander can be counted on to be better than Strasburg and Scherzer. The Nationals went 10-0 in games those two started.
Could you build a team so all-around good that it could beat the Nationals? Of course. The Astros and Dodgers sure tried. But I doubt you could build a team that the Nationals couldn’t beat right back.
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