- The Washington Times
Monday, October 28, 2019

For a sport so entrenched in new-age analytics that can quantify most any event on the field, baseball paradoxically leaves its stars often chalking up a poor stretch of performances to plain old bad luck.

“That’s baseball,” players will say, sometimes with a shrug, not one that says they don’t care about playing better, but one that says there’s only so much they can do.

Take the Washington Nationals’ offensive slump, which arrived at the worst imaginable time — mid-World Series, when the Nationals brought the party to their home turf carrying a 2-0 series advantage. In the three games played in Washington last weekend, all losses, they proceeded to score only one run each night and combined to go 1-for-21 with runners in scoring position.

The Nationals led MLB in the regular season with 612 RBI with runners in scoring position, averaging .279. They were the kings of stringing together a few hits at a time and capitalizing on their chances. So what’s going on?

Batters aren’t swinging and missing at an unusually high rate. There’s been some pitch-chasing, but not much of it. Indeed, the Nationals have been making good contact — but those shots have been finding their way to the Houston Astros’ gloves too easily.

“We barrelled a lot of baseballs and they went to a lot of fielders,” Anthony Rendon said with a rueful chuckle, “where they took either two steps or no steps or just they were playing in the right position.”

After Sunday’s 7-1 loss in Game 5, which gave Houston a 3-2 series lead, Trea Turner said he could remember five line-outs off the top of his head. He had the number dead on: The Nationals lined out five times in Game 5 as well as five in Game 4.

Line-outs are a good measure for why the Nationals can’t get on base right now because a line drive hit indicates a well-struck ball, one that would drop for a single or double in the absence of a fielder snagging it out of the air.

“I don’t know if you realize how small of a window that every single one of those hits are from either being a homer, a hit, another out, a pop-up, a strikeout,” Turner said. “We’re talking about hundredths of seconds if not millimeters on the barrel. Sometimes you hit them at people, sometimes you don’t. Hopefully we don’t hit them at people.”

So the Nationals believe being unlucky is part of the deal, but the Astros have done what they can on defense to stifle Washington’s hits.

The Astros relied on the defensive shift more than any other American League team this year, shifting their fielders 49.4% of the time, according to Baseball Savant. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers shifted more often.

But Houston did this especially to combat lefty hitters — like Juan Soto. The Astros utilized a defensive shift against a remarkable 77.2% of all left-handed at-bats this year.

Soto does have two home runs during this World Series, and those render a shift moot. But he’s also lined out into the shift. In the first inning of Game 4, Astros third baseman Alex Bregman stood much closer to second base when he caught Soto’s would-be hit; it ended the inning, stranding Rendon after a single.

“I think one, it’s baseball,” Rendon said. “You can put a lot of great swings on a lot of great pitches and sometimes it just doesn’t roll your way. There’s seven other fielders behind the pitcher. To try to find a hole sometimes is hard and difficult.

“There’s so much scouting now, whether you want to call them nerds or whatever, where they put in their formulas and they do this and that. They say ‘Position this person here, position that person there.’ I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. We just got to try to find some holes.”

Adam Eaton also credited how catchers Martín Maldonado and Robinson Chirinos have called games to keep Washington’s hitters off-balance by “going against the script.” They helped Houston win games 3 and 4 without either of their aces, Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander, on the field.

Verlander heads to the mound for Houston in Game 6 with the Astros a win away from clinching their second title in three years. The Nationals will counter with Stephen Strasburg.

Eaton outlined the plan for facing Verlander in the must-win game.

“I think it’s going to be probably how the whole series has gone,” Eaton said, “which is, first time through, make an adjustment and try to beat them to the punch next time around, but gather as much information and intel for us first time around. Communicate.

“And hit with runners in scoring position. You guys haven’t asked me that, but I’ll just go ahead and touch on that,” he quipped. “Hasn’t been great … It’s nothing that we can just sit down and talk about and then it happens. It’s more, one hit falls, and all of a sudden it’s kind of a snowball effect. The more you talk about it, the more you think about it, the worse it gets.”

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