Ask Boswell: Redskins, Nationals and Washington sports

Oct 28, 2019

Washington Post Sports Columnist Tom Boswell answered your questions about the Redskins, Capitals, Nationals, Wizards, the NFL and more.

Past Ask Boswell chats

Good Morning! 

I just woke up. I got out of bed. I did not fall on the floor. My neck feels GREAT! I can pitch! Yeah, but I'm not Max Scherzer. Jesus, what a pain --in the neck! OK, regroup. 

Nats go to Houston needing only two small things --their bats wake up, they win two games in a row against a great team, as they did against the Dodgers and they are World Champs. Amazing how sane that sounds --even after they score 1, 1 and 1 in first 3 World Series Games in 86 years in D.C. 

We'll get to all that. Send questions now. 

There are no bad days when Washington sends Stephen Strasburg to the mound in Game Six of the World Series tomorrow. (Of course, there have been BETTER days --like if they won one of the last three). 

We'll get to it all --including the LONG history of team-paralysis in the World Series that we've watched for many decades. Nats are in one. Does anybody ever get out? 

Lets go!

Maybe this postseason in MLB will puncture this myth.... -Neither Nats nor Astros affected in 4 games so far, visiting teams won twice -Nats clinched NLDS away, in LA, before a “hostile crowd”; -Nats took 2 in St Louis before sweeping at home: not easy to do before the self proclaimed popes of baseball; -Astros beat up the Yanks in NY before clinching at home; -Yanks clinched the ALDS in their one game @ Twins.... Trea Turner himself pointed out that “home field advantage” did not help Nats in 4 prior NLDS losses, all at home. Your column today (Sunday) suggests there may be a”reverse homefield psychology” at play (maybe affected Astros too?): tense at home because you really want to swing for the fences for the fan base?

In general, home field is a slight advantage in baseball, and in the World Series, too. But NOT MUCH.

For this Game Six, I think Nats are much better off in Houston where the hostility of the crowd can tick you off enough to focus on shutting them up and stop trying so hard.

There's nobody you'd rather have pitching than Strasburg the way he's rolling now. If Nats can score three runs, I think they win that one --but can they score three or four runs? We'll get to that.

And would Scherzer start a Game Seven? "That's what we are hoping," said Mike Rizzo after Game Five. 

Yes, just a "hope." 

But Scherzer, who looked like he was 1,000 years old two hours before the game at a press conference --he'd just had a cortisone shot in his neck-- looked completely different six hours later in the clubhouse getting dressed QUICKLY and normally to leave --put a shirt on by himself, arm overhead. No mystery --cortisone shots WORK. Or at least they take your sense of pain away. In 48 hours, can he pitch? I'd doubt it. He's really hurt. Anybody who's had a history of lower back spasms (me) knows that when you're locked up it's extremely painful and does not go away quickly. I assume his neck is worse, probably much worse, than that. 

It just seems so cruel that, for someone who has driven his body so hard for so long and "posted" so many times when others wouldn't or couldn't, that Max Scherzer's body finally decided to scream "NO!" on the morning of Game Five of the World Series.

Or maybe that's actually logical. Mad Max has pushed so hard for so long --which has been a key piece of his greatness-- that a day like this was going to come.

But did it have to be Oct. 27th, 2019?

"That's baseball," Gerardo Parra would say.

"That's  *******," most of the rest of us would say.

Tom, Many Nats fans are delighted that the Bryce Harper is no longer with the team. Citing among other “ facts” that Harper was a cancer in the Clubhouse. I’ve never read that he was. Anything to it?

More like a clubhouse bunion.

Easy to ignore but occasionally a little annoying.

Just my take. Ask 24 players, get 24 answers.

Would it be fair to think that the Nats were playing with house money all the way through this glorious improbably run... and pressure took its toll when reality set in after they returned home?

In a sense.

But there is a simpler answer, but not one that any Nats follower probably wants to hear. However, it's not my job to sugarcoat but to tell you what I've observed or what patterns I've seen. As I've mentioned, I've covered every World Series since 1975. THE MOST FREQUENT phenomenon --once every 3-4-5 years-- is the Total Team Hitting Slump over the last three or four games of a World Series.

I have NEVER seen a team break out of one once they were locked in it. I told my wife after Game Four, she was being cheerful --"The Nationals probably aren't going to score again this season. Maybe a run or two."

I don't want to be right about this. But I've seen this a million times. It's nobody's fault. It just happens. But once it starts, every few years, it just sucks every team down. It's sad to watch. They don't know what's happening. It's pressure, just like all hitting slumps and team slumps, but World Series pressure makes it much worse, and much harder to break out of.

I first saw this when the Orioles went cold in the last three games of the '79 Series and scored 1-0-1. Before Game Seven, Earl Weaver called in some Baltimore baseball writers, not me, and said, "I've got a bad feeling about this." He meant the bats going cold. The total score of the last 3 games was 15-2, very similar to the Nats losing the last three 19-3.

Then I looked back and realized that the '76 Yankees --a great hitting team-- had scored 1-3-2-2 ion the last four games --all losses in a sweep to LA. Total score: 22-8.

Also, in '78, the Dodgers lost the last four straight and scored 1-3-2-2. Total score: 28-8.

You see a solo homer, like Soto's in Game Five, or a rally that fizzles after just one run. What you don't see is "crooked numbers" by teams that would normally average about 5 runs a game.

When the O's won the '83 World Series, I watched it happen to the losing Phillies, including Mike Schmidt, who was helpless and hopeless once he started striking out. It started early. Of course, good pitching is part of it. In five games, Phils scored 2-1-2-4-0. They wouldn't have had a good offensive game if both teams had gone to Florida and played until Xmas.

 In '85, in the last five games, after Bret Saberhagen shut down the Cards in Game Three, the whole St. Louis team went into a hitting coma --1-3-1-1-0. That's six runs in five games. Total score of those games: 25-6.

Are we getting the unfortunate picture? It's endless. But I'm going to go through it because the last three days I've been in a press box full of writers all asking each other, "What is wrong with the Nats offense?" I just had to shake my head --these who are people who've been covering the Series forever. It's like we all have amnesia from one year to the next, or because there are 3 or 4 "normal" Series in between we forget that the Team Slump is a big recurrent deal in the Series. 

The core of the great upsets in the '88 and '90 World Series was that the A's hitters --the Bash Brothers-- got semi-shutdown for a couple of games, then went into full over-swing choke mode. In '88, the A's scored 0-2-3-2 in the last four games after destroying the league all season. In '90, Jose Rijo shut them out in Game One. It was over. We just didn't know it in real-time. The A's were swept and scored 0-4-3-1. Total score: 22-8.

In '96, the Series that this one will be compared to, the Braves won the first two games on the road and scored 16 runs, just like the Nats scored 17 in Houston. Then it turned. In the next four games, the Braves scored 2-6-0-2. Not a total clampdown. But they lost in 6 games.

In '04, the Cards lost Game 1 by 11-9 and Tony LaRussa was very upset, came in and practically said that his team had just lost THE pivotal game. The next three games, IT got the CArds who scored and were outscored 13-3.

In '06, the Tigers went cold. In '08, it was the Rays who lost the last three games 19-9. In the '12 SF sweep the Tigers scored 6 runs the whole Series lost 16-6. 

In '13, the Cards scored 2-1-1 in the last three games, all losses. Total score 13-4. It's like one team almost disappears while the other gains strength.

There MUST be examples of teams SNAPPING OUT OF IT after back-to-back games full of runners left in scoring position.

If you see the Nats have a three-run inning --in any inning-- in Houston you may be watching something remarkable --a team with enough resilience to escape from IT.

As I said, I'm just putting this in a chat because everybody should have a good time and nobody can see the future and patterns don't always repeat.

But IMO this is THE MOST FREQUENT, POWERFUL and TYPICAL pattern that we see in the World Series --the team hitting slump when hit with tons of pressure, the desire to please home fans and, of course, very good pitching.

When you see the best-hitting teams in MLB --that as a group averaged 5-or-more runs a game suddenly start averaging 2-or-fewer runs or even one-or-fewer runs in a streak of vital games, something is up. The Nats are not guilty of anything. This happens --over and over. It's just too bad (from Washington's perspective) that it happened to them.

It's not over. I always say, "Don't tell baseball what it can do. Let it tell you."

But for the last 44 years it has told me, "Watch for Total Team Hitting Slumps to be the turning point of about 20-to-25 percent of all WS. And those slumps continue until the last out of the Series."

Maybe not this time. Now THAT would be fun to write. And it would be another special quality of this team.

I mentioned all this --in a lot of annoying detail, I suspect-- to Mike Rizzo last night. He said, "How about if we just hit the first ****ing pitch of the game out of the park. Think that would help?"

I'm not going to be a bitter Nats fan and say we lost because of the umpires. But, nonetheless, the umpiring -- particularly the calls on balls and strikes -- have been awful the entire Series. The called strike 3 on Robles in the 7th last night was absolutely ridiculous -- and it was a back-breaker. How does someone like Lance Barksdale get chosen by MLB to work the World Series? And does last night move us closer to an electronic strike zone?

The call on Robles was terrible. But Yan Gomes was up next. I doubt they'd have pinch-hit for him. Yes, he COULD have hit a three-run homer to tie the game. But I think it's easy for disappointed fans to put a LOT more weight on a few bad calls than those calls deserve.

In Game Two, lots of people online complained that the umps favored Verlander over Strasburg. I tweeted that a big part of the problem was the crappy Fox Box for the strike zone that fans see on TV. Compare that strike zone box to the much more reliable --imo-- tracking of pitches on MLB's Gameday.

I looked at every pitch of Game Two on Gameday. I gave the ump one inch of "leeway" --or maybe a half-an-inch on pitches that may have just brushed or just missed an edge.  There were five missed calls on Verlander --three went his way, two against him (including a 'ball' that was a 'strike' in the last batter he faced and walked --Robles). There were five missed calls on Strasburg --two went his way. So, Verlander was a net +1 for the whole game and Strasburg was net -1.

Obviously, that's next to nothing. Watching the Fox Box in the press box, it looked like there were five missed calls PER INNING. I think it's fair to assume that the Gameday --using Pitch-f/x data-- is much closer to what MLB wants its umpires to call. If you want more info: Google "MLB.com At Bat."

Acknowledging that it's hard to manage a bullpen with only two reliable arms, I'm not sure I understand the bullpen strategy from Martinez. It seemed like maybe he didn't want to bring in Doolittle or Hudson while trailing -- he left them in the pen in games 3 and 4 while the games were still close-ish. But then in game 5 he figured that he couldn't afford to take that approach anymore? Fine -- a foolish consistency, and all. But then when he brings in Doolittle for the 7th, he pulls him after 3 outs and 14 pitches? If you only have two guys, why put all the pressure on Hudson for *6* outs against the *Houston Astros*? (I mean, it's not Murderers' Row, but it's close. Manslaughter, at least.) Not much of a question, I'll acknowledge, but it seems like these were questionable choices in real time, not just with the benefit of hindsight.

I thought, and tweeted at the time, after Hudson's 33rd pitch, that I had no idea why you would have Hudson in the game for TWO innings when you are down three runs and will probably need Hudson for at least 8 outs in Game 6 and 7 combined. (Assuming you need to win both to win the Series.) I think Springer hit pitch No. 34 or 35 out of the park.

Dave Martinez has had a VERY GOOD post-season, imo. That is almost the only move that, in real time, I said, "What!??" 

And he has made a lot of tough calls that turned out to be the right button. Part of that is good luck --but he was due some. He's done very well --a "key player" for the Nats. But I did NOT understand arranging your bullpen so you would HAVE to get 2 innings from Hudson or else go to "Others" 

The trade deadline is fast approaching and nothing has happened. To prove their point, it appears that Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen are willing to waste a year of Trent's career and forego any draft compensation. Don't they realize the message it sends when you treat one of your best players that way, someone who had often played hurt for the good of the team? They'll continue to get free agents as long as they over pay (eg Josh Norman and Landon Collins) but their young players have to be looking to get out ASAP as the team is destined for mediocrity. I now enjoy watching the Redskins lose.

Who cares?

Okay, you make the perfect point. If you go to SEVEN Pro Bowls for the Skins, they treat you like crap. They are petty and vengeful. They try to attack your reputation --this guy just wants more money. What a great organization!

For years, to almost everybody in the NFL, or college coaches looking at the NFL, the Skins have been the $KIN$ --a Snyder pay day. Often they also sell themselves the company line --probably to soothe their athletic consciences. But Factor One is that they came for the money.

Jay Gruden probably thinks that 5 1/4 years of his life was worth the $30-to-$35M that he will end up getting for it. Not bad for a member of the Arena Football Hall of Fame.

Jay now joins Cousins as the only two conspicuous people on the Skins org who came out of the Ashburn Soul Grinder with their personal reputations in tact.

Glad Tony Wyllie (PR) got out --for his sake-- and went to Special Olympics. Talk about a change of culture!!!

There are ALWAYS lots and lots of good people in any organization. But Snyder/Allen is just toxic. I always say that, like Angelos in Baltimore, he/they could stumble into a great young coach or QB like the O's ended up with those five outstanding years with Buck and Duquette. But maybe Dan is never going to get lucky.

Every time I see Haskins play I think, "He's not ready. But the REAL question is: Will he EVER be ready?"

He looked so lost --versus any blitz, or over-throwing high into coverage over the middle for INT vs Vikes-- that it was one of those "he may never be more than a project" moments. But give him time. Many QBs improve a lot over their first 1-2-3 years in the league. He had almsot no time as a QB at OSU. BUT whatever it is that they see, so far, I don't see it. There is a difference between throwing a pretty ball, and being NFL prototype size, and going to the same HS as the owner's son, and being a good NFL QB.

The jury's out. But that doesn't mean that the jury isn't deliberating every time he goes on the field. For now, they should do everything in their power to keep him OFF the field, unless they have no choice and are playing a Bottom 10 defense.

Obviously our bullpen has been an issue all year and the playoffs while shortening the bullpen does not provide a solution for the long season. I believe Suero and Raney could ultimately be part of the solution if they could find the strike zone on a more consistent basis. Is this something that can be taught/developed or is it something that we’ll just have to live with.

I agree that Rainey and Suero are MLB relievers and can be part of a good bullpen on a contender. Back end relievers? Jury's out on that, too. But Rainey has big-time two-pitch strikeout stuff. Maybe someday Suero, with his cutter, will be his own version of a useful Craig Stammen, with his sinker/slider. 

Mr. Boswell, This neck issue for Max has been a recurring one. Obviously, this time around is the most inopportune of them all. Do you think this is anything related to the way Max trains/prepares between starts? Is his intensity his own worst enemy? Or is this just an unfortunate physical peculiarity perhaps made worse by his age?

It's been noted since the beginning of his career that Max snaps his neck in his delivery. Well, no delivery is perfect. And he's reached 35 as THE most durable pitcher of the last eight years in MLB. So, the neck snap hasn't hurt him --much. And there is no reason you'd change it. Some say it has become less violent over the years. 

But his neck picked a helluva time to yell, "No."

Here is my piece from spring traing of '17 dealing with exactly these issues with Max. Playing with pain. Pushing to the edge for years at a time.

This is the "money quote." I still remember thinking, "That is PERFECTLY expressed."

“When you pitch, you’re always right at the edge of your physical limits. You’re like a race car driver going 200 miles an hour into a banked turn,” Scherzer said. “You have to push, push, push. But if you push just a little too hard, you crash. You spend your career finding that balance.”

https://www.thestar.com/sports/baseball/2017/03/18/pain-and-perseverance-are-big-parts-of-a-baseball-life.html

 

I was at the game last night. Great crowd but Joe was his usual fair to middling self. Any other possible starter last night?

No.

He did fine. He was pitching on one day of rest after two innings in Game 3.

I thought the standing ovation when he walked out alone to stretch a half-hour before the game and the "Lets Go, Joe" chants for him were two of the greatest unexpected spontaneous ballpark memories I've had in recent times.

The Nats Park crowds the last three days, with nothing to cheer about in those particular games, were fabulous. Too bad, I mean REALLY too bad that D.C. didn't get to have one or two GREAT World Series game at home.

BUT Games One and Two in Houston were the real thing. So was the Wildcard game in DC and Game 4 of the NLDS vs Dodgers with Zim HR.

This has been an amazing season, no matter how it ends. Someday, over the next many years, there will be other World Series teams from D.C. --but there may never be one that is significantly more memorable or attractive than this one.

Parra Shark. What a great team symbol. Stay in the Fight. What a great motto. Home run dance lines: What a great team image.

I agree with your column and (Barry Svrluga's) that no one should give up on the Nats yet, given the way they have proven themselves this year. But to win the Series, it seems that the obvious remedies to winning the next two will be: Turner improving his OBP, Rendon hitting well, Soto continuing to hit, and shutdown performances from Strasburg in Game 6 and Scherzer in Game 7. If Max cannot go in Game 7- do you see a committee of Sanchez, Corbin et. al. being able to close the deal?

A Game 7, if they get there, might well be Sanchez (once of twice through order, depending on how he's doing), Corbin (on three days rest) coming in to face a LHed hitter, then staying for 1 or 2 innings, followed by Max, if available (NO WAY to know), then Doolittle and Hudson for 1 inning each. 

Unless the Nats get a big lead in Game 6 --against Verlander!???-- they'd probably need both Doolittle and Hudson in Game 6. So, you can see that things aren't looking good for having enough arms in G7.

It's still fascinating that Max will probably be either "Zero --can't pitch at all, not even close" or "show did wonders. It's risky, but it's G7 of the WS. What the hell, I'm pitching." Which could be 5 innings, who knows. I'd never suggest that anybody take a risk like that with their career --if there is such risk, I'm no doctor-- UNLESS they were 35 years old, still didn't have a World Series victory ring and also own a guaranteed $210M contract. THEN, if you are physically able to pitch EFFECTIVELY, then MAYBE you pitch.

I'll stop at MAYBE because this is not an elbow injury where all you risk is your pitching career. It's the nerves in your neck at C5-6. I'm no doc. But that sounds like it could be a quality-of-life issue --with bad luck.

Obviously, this is NOT how normal people, or any amateur athlete, or any high school or college athlete should approach these things.

That's it for today. Got to get it together and head to Houston. I still think there might be some more FUN in store. It's a lot to ask after all the shock and joy this team has provided this season, but how often is there a Game Six of the World Series? If you are not going to be GREEDY now, what are you waiting for!

Enjoy the week. See you at the parade. Or next Monday at 11 a.m. Whichever it turns out to be.

Tom, what's your take on Soto's gold glove candidacy? Love his bat, but it seems like a stretch to consider him an elite defensive outfielder. Victor Robles seems like a very legitimate GG candidate, and I would have guessed Adam Eaton had a better case to make than Soto. How do the metrics and your eye test rate Soto and the others as defensive talents and GG candidates compared to the rest of the field?

Metrics really like Soto and think he's a "plus" LFer right now. He's made a couple of excited, youthful mistakes in LF in the World Series, but he just gets better and better out there. Threw out a man at the plate in Game Four. He's now gliding to balls, not fighting to get to them. He's at least average right now --18 months after playing LF for the first time in his life. He has a good LF arm, but not quite a RF arm. If he keeps improving for 2-3 more years....well, lets wait and see.

This is his first post-season. In 15 games --multiply by 10 for a full-season equivalent-- he has 10 runs, three doubles, four homers, 12 RBI, 8 walks and is slashing .268/.369/536 for a .905 OPS. He's stuck out 20 times in 56 at bats which shows that he's facing the best pitching and has also been swinging too hard at times. But look how fast he adjusts and gets back on track!

Here is one other fact to make you (even) more interest in Game Six. Strasburg's record this post-season is 4-0 with a 1.93 ERA. He has 40 strikeouts and ONE walk. (A second walk was "intentional." That doesn't count for me.)

Cheers.

Do the Nationals have a $140 million problem? Corbin has looked like a deer in headlights in the Divisional and World Series games he’s pitched. Shades of Gio?

There;s no problem.

Except for the six runs in 1/3 inning in that first relief inning, he's had a 4.05 ERA in 20 innings with a win and two holds out of the bullpen. He's been asked to be a reliever three times. He's been asked for a lot. He's done fine. Even when he's had early problems, he's settled down and given six innings against Dodgers (106 win) and Houston (107 wins). Corbin is part of the SOLUTION for the future.  

I don't have a question but did want to take a minute and show some appreciation for the WaPo's coverage of the Series. It has really been a fabulous team effort from an impressive group of journalists. I am not sure how you all manage to turn around so much in-depth, thoughtful coverage of so many different aspects of the game in such a short period of time. A lot of long nights, I imagine. I'm grateful for you, Barry, Adam, Chelsea, Neil, the Bog Team, Jesse & Sam, and anyone else I may have missed. And whoever is at the editor's desk deciding what to cover is doing an excellent job, too.

Thanks VERY much. I'm sure I speak for everybody  (including the great Dave Sheinin who just won the Dan Jenkins Award for excellence in sports writing for '19), when I say that we all appreciate it.

(It's a helluva team, ain't it. Oh, sorry. Got carried away there.)

Boz, Can you remember a more shocking World Series development than Max Scherzer, an alpha in a sport of bulldogs, having to scratch himself from the most important game of his career with an ailment that was completely unknown publicly before yesterday afternoon?

No,. I can't.

It sure blows away "Vince Coleman (110 SB, 107 runs)) just got eaten by the tarp!! during the NLCS in '85.

A machine controlled a mechanical rain tarp that came out of the ground to cover the infield. Vince didn't see it coming (pre-game or off day, I forget which) and the thing rolled over his left leg. He was the Cards star rookie leadoff man and speedy OFer. He missed the rest of that series and the whole World Series vs KC. The next two years, he stole 107 and 109 bases. So, the tarp took a round, but it didn't get a KO.

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Thomas Boswell
A Washington Post columnist since 1984, Thomas Boswell is known for the many books he has written on baseball, including "How Life Imitates the World Series" and "Why Time Begins on Opening Day."
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