The Nationals were unable to get past the National League Division Series in 2016 and 2017. The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs each were able to down the Nats in five games in successive postseasons.
In each of those heartbreaking series, starting pitcher Max Scherzer was not quite himself, suffering one season from a stress fracture in knuckle on his throwing hand to a hamstring issue this past campaign.
#Nats say Max Scherzer won’t pitch in WBC due to stress fracture in knuckle of his right ring finger. Will be ready for spring training.-- Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) January 9, 2017
Then, in the late going of last season’s matchup against the Cubs, Stephen Strasburg had to deal with an illness before he finally stepped up and started Game 4.
There are many factors that contribute to winning even one playoff series, a feat that unfortunately has escaped the Nats in their attempts in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017.
“Skill level over 162 games takes over from luck, without a doubt,” said former major league general manager and current MLB Network analyst Dan O’Dowd. “That’s why you can’t overreact early on in a season because luck and skill are on the same pendulum, but as the year gets deeper, skill definitely takes precedence over luck.
“It was very unfortunate for them this year the way Strasburg was pitching for them for Scherzer to pull his hamstring in the very last start of the season. I say this to this day, if he had not pulled a hamstring and he had started Game 1 and Strasburg had started Game 2, there’s absolutely no way on this earth the Cubs win that series. Dodgers might have been a different story, but there is absolutely no way the Cubs beat them if that’s a healthy Scherzer. That’s just bad luck. There’s no magic formula there.”
O’Dowd said it is always tough to decide how much time to give your best pitchers when they are nursing ailments late in the season, a decision made even more difficult when your club is running away with the division and is eyeing setting up the rotation for a postseason run.
“I don’t know, with a big lead, you are darned if you do and darned if you don’t,” O’Dowd said. “If you mothball him and get him completely healthy, then you could hurt his rhythm. Baseball is a game of balance, rhythm and timing. And if you don’t let these guys actively participate and maintain that, then you might get a healthy pitcher that doesn’t have any of the three things.”
That is why O’Dowd believes Nationals president of baseball operations and general manager Mike Rizzo has one of the toughest jobs in baseball and has come through with flying colors. Further, O’Dowd argues, Rizzo deserves a long contract extension. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Rizzo will make $10 million from 2014 through 2018.
“I just feel like they’ve been snakebit a little bit,” O’Dowd said. “But Mike Rizzo, for me, has done as good a job as any GM. I think he’s one of the better GMs in the game. ... He deserves to be paid like one of the better GMs in the game. He deserves to have a long-term contract extension. He deserves an opportunity to be there even if they don’t have Bryce Harper because I think Mike will fill it out.”
Keeping Rizzo in the fold and rewarding him with a long-term deal is another way to help the Nationals maintain the high-end talent level they seek based on a fortified minor league system. That’s has been one of the strengths that Rizzo has brought to the table in order to give the Nats a shot to make the postseason each and every season. This year, they go for a franchise-record third consecutive playoff berth and hope they arrive in October with their top pitchers as healthy as possible.