Associated Press photo
Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson will face criticism all winter after the Game 5 loss.
In the immediate wake of their 9-7 loss to the Cardinals, the Nationals and their fans were too consumed with emotion to think rationally about what had just transpired. But with sunrise and a new day comes more perspective and an opportunity to revisit the path that led everything to this soul-crushing juncture.
Here, then, is a look back at some of the toughest decisions Mike Rizzo, Davey Johnson and others made leading up to and during the NLDS...
1. THE STRASBURG SHUTDOWN
It was inevitable: The only way the Nationals could have avoided subjecting themselves to criticism from around the world about their decision to shut down a healthy Stephen Strasburg in early-September was to win the World Series. (And even then, some would have decried Rizzo for denying the right-hander the opportunity to contribute to a title.)
So it's no surprise that much of the discussion this morning centers on the Strasburg shutdown and whether it factored at all into the outcome of this series.
"I'm not going to think about it," Rizzo inside the disconsolate clubhouse late last night. "We had a plan in mind, and it was something we had from the beginning. I stand by my decision. We'll take the criticism as it comes, but we have to do what's best for the Washington Nationals, and we think we did."
Would Strasburg's presence on the active roster have won the series for the Nationals? It sure doesn't seem that way. The guy who replaced him in the rotation, Ross Detwiler, was the only guy on the staff to produce a quality start in the series. Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson still would have pitched, and likely struggled.
And who's to say Strasburg would have pitched any better? His ERA over his final six starts was 4.29. He was showing signs of fatigue. He would have been entering uncharted territory in innings and pitches thrown over a long season.
On top of all that, Strasburg's presence wouldn't have turned the Nationals' youthful hitters into clutch postseason performers, nor allowed Drew Storen to throw one more strike in the ninth inning last night that would have made this debate moot anyway.
2. DAVEY JOHNSON'S BULLPEN USE
Johnson spent all week talking about how he wasn't going to change anything about the way he managed his team in the postseason, insisting the manner -- and the players -- that produced 98 wins in the regular season could also win in October.
But in the Nationals' final two games of the year, the veteran skipper contradicted himself with his bullpen usage, staying away from several relievers who helped him get to this point and instead turning to two struggling starters in unfamiliar roles.
The gamble worked in Game 4 with Jordan Zimmermann striking out the side. It did not work in Game 5, with Edwin Jackson laboring through the seventh inning and giving up a run that put the Cardinals in better position to mount their final rally.
"I just felt like Jackson was the best choice I had to get through that part of that lineup," Johnson said. "He did the job for me. He gave up a run, but he did what we needed to, to get to the people we needed to get to."
The most curious absence from Game 5 might well have been Ryan Mattheus, the right-hander who was so effective all season escaping jams and who authored the greatest two-pitch relief appearance in history in Game 1. Mattheus never did warm up last night.
Some will also question the fact Johnson used Storen in the 8-0 Game 3 blowout, in the process forcing the young right-hander to pitch on three consecutive days. Storen wound up throwing 70 pitches in three days. He had actually been used back-to-back-to-back in September, so this wasn't a first-time challenge. Though in that previous instance (Sept. 10-12) he threw a total of only 22 pitches.
3. STICKING WITH THE SAME LINEUP
Johnson may not have stayed true to his plan in the bullpen, but he certainly stayed true when it came to his starting lineup. The same eight players started all five games of the series in the same batting order: Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Michael Morse, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Kurt Suzuki.
That lineup produced little in the series' first four games, going a collective 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position. It did burst out early in Game 5 against Adam Wainwright, scoring six quick runs and knocking the veteran starter out of the game.
But those bats went silent the rest of the night -- save Suzuki's insurance-run single in the eighth -- and at the end of the series there is reason to wonder whether anyone off the bench should have been given a chance to replace one of the struggling starters.
The most obvious candidate to have been benched was Espinosa, who went 1-for-15 with two walks and seven strikeouts in the series. Espinosa also was shaky in the field at times, diminishing his value to the Nationals.
Would Steve Lombardozzi have delivered a big hit in a big moment had he replaced Espinosa? We'll never know. But by the end of Game 5, it -- like so many other subjects -- was a valid question to ask.