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October 5, 2014

Playoff Prospectus

Zimmermann and Post-Zimmermann: The Two Games Within NLDS Game Two

by Mike Gianella

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This is the kind of game recap that needs two recaps. There were two separate stories that took place during the course of this historic game, the longest postseason game by time and one of the two longest postseason games by innings played. The first story was about the great pitching duel between Jordan Zimmermann and Tim Hudson. The second story was about eight innings of bullpen mastery or offensive futility (depending upon your point of view) that ended with a Brandon Belt blast in the top of the 18th. Both stories were woven together and made possible by a Drew Storen blown save that perhaps should never have happened.

All most will remember about the game is its historic length, the Belt home run, and inning after inning of bullpen dominance. That is a shame, since it washes away two terrific pitching performances by Zimmermann and Hudson.

Despite Stephen Strasburg’s Game One assignment and higher profile, based on performance this year Zimmermann was arguably the ace of this staff. He pitched like that ace tonight, with an approach against the Giants that basically said “come and hit it if you can.”

Eighty-six of the 100 pitches Zimmermann threw were fastballs. The Fox Sports 1 broadcast crew noted early that Zimmermann threw hard, harder, and hardest, but even they understated how much hard stuff Zimmermann was throwing. He wasn’t throwing as hard as Strasburg did in Game One, but with the movement he had on his pitches it didn’t matter.

On the other side, Tim Hudson wasn’t delivering gas but was coming at the Nationals with an effective approach that involved attacking the corners of the strike zone with a good amount of pitch movement. Anthony Rendon managed to figure Hudson out—going 4-for-4 against the veteran—but the rest of the Nationals lineup was stymied. It didn’t seem like it would matter much, though, as Rendon plated Asdrubal Cabrera in the third inning to give the Nationals a 1-0 lead. The way Zimmermann was going, that seemed like all he would need.

Flash forward to the ninth inning. Zimermann had not only been dominant but effective, and entered the ninth having thrown 88 pitches. The ninth inning proved to be no exception to the first eight, as he struck out pinch-hitter Matt Duffy and induced Gregor Blanco to fly out to center field. Only one out was left until the Nationals could tie the series up 1-1.

Then Zimmermann walked Joe Panik and Nationals manager Matt Williams pulled him for closer Drew Storen to face Buster Posey. Where Zimmermann’s pitches had life and movement, Storen’s only had life but were mostly fat and toward the center of the plate. Posey singled up the middle to move Panik to second and then Pablo Sandoval cued a ball down the left field line to score Panik. Posey raced home with what would have been the winning run but the relay throw from Ian Desmond beat Posey by a hair.

Two questions emerged from that top of the ninth inning.

1) Should Williams have let Zimmermann try to finish the game?

You have to squint to try and find a good reason why Zimmermann was not left in there to face Posey. Batter/pitcher matchup data is specious reasoning at best, but even playing devil’s advocate with these numbers leaves you with the fact that Posey was 3-for-15 lifetime against Zimmermann with no extra-base hits. Williams is relatively judicious in not overworking his starters, but this didn’t seem to be an issue either. Zimmermann was up to 100 pitches when he was pulled, but had thrown 105 or more pitches six times during the regular season. At the very least, leaving him in to face Posey to finish the game seemed to make sense.

2) Was Buster Posey safe?

It was a very close play at the plate, to be sure.

It was mesmerizing watching the play on a loop over and over and over again, but this freeze frame captures what the replay seemed to capture as well. It looked like Posey did a little “hop” at the end of the play, which barely allowed Wilson Ramos to tag him in time. At the end of nine innings, it was all tied up at 1-1.

And then the game went into extra innings. And they played.

And they played.

And they played.

Some long extra-inning games have an ebb and flow, where some innings feel like they might lead to the end of the game but others go quickly and quietly. This game had far more of the latter, with every inning appearing more futile than the next. From the 10th through the 17th innings, below were the sum total of times where a runner reached scoring position for both teams.

1) Giants 11th: Gregor Blanco sacrificed to third base, Juan Perez to second base. Joe Panik popped out to third base, Buster Posey intentionally walked, Pablo Sandoval struck out swinging.

2) Giants 12th: Hunter Pence doubled to center. Brandon Belt grounded out to second, Pence to third. Brandon Crawford popped out to short, Andrew Susac grounded out to first.

3) Nationals 12th: Ian Desmond walked. Bryce Harper flew out, moving Desmond to second. Wilson Ramos struck out. Nate Schierholtz intentionally walked, Danny Espinosa lined out to shortstop.

That was it. In eight innings across 16 frames of baseball, the Giants and Nationals only had three opportunities combined with a runner in scoring position.

The Nationals' relief effort in extras was highlighted by Craig Stammen’s three innings but was mostly a team effort. On the Giants' side, Yusmeiro Petit was the hero of the night (and perhaps the game) going six innings and only allowing a hit and three walks while striking out seven. He not only kept the Giants in the game, he shut the Nationals down until the 18th inning.

That set the stage for Brandon Belt, who deposited a Tanner Roark pitch over the right field wall for the go-ahead and eventually game-winning home run. Despite a quality at-bat by Rendon that led to a walk in the bottom of the 18th, the Nationals couldn’t capitalize, and lost at home for the second time in a row.

They head to San Francisco on Monday with a daunting task ahead of them. Only three National League teams have come back from a 0-2 deficit to win a five-game series: the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers, the 1984 San Diego Padres, and the 2012 San Francisco Giants, who are the only NL team to do so in the modern LDS format. While the talent is certainly there for this Nationals team to bounce back, they will have to do better than the 5-for-55 the non-Rendon hitters did in Game Two in order to keep the series alive and avoid the sweep.

Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

Related Content:  Washington Nationals

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