Nats’ ability to not panic early pays dividends later

In Game 5 of the National League Division Series, the Nationals had two hits and two walks in the first five innings against Dodgers starter Walker Buehler. They had struck out four times.

Then in the sixth, they finally pieced together back-to-back hits. Anthony Rendon doubled and Juan Soto singled to plate a run.

Even with the difficulties in mounting early rallies, the Nats did make Buehler work. He ended up having to throw 117 pitches.

Buehler had been even more lethal in Game 1. The right-hander allowed just one hit over six innings in that Los Angeles win.

In the wild card matchup against the Brewers on Oct. 1, the Nats were held to one run in the first seven innings. They were able to muster one run on just three hits against Brandon Woodruff, Brent Suter and Drew Pomeranz. Then the tables turned in the eighth inning.

In Game 5 of the NLDS, the Nats erupted for six runs in the final three innings.

In the wild card game, they scored three runs in the eighth.

Both games featured frustrating starts at the plate and ended with amazing displays of power.

The display of off-then-on offense by the Nats has become a familiar sight in their run to the National League Championship Series.

“We really preach - both sides, this goes for the pitchers as well - how to get to the next pitch,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said during a conference call Thursday. “It’s not just at-bats. It’s pitch-by-pitch. The boys have been really good about not carrying their at-bats to the next one. Every moment is big. These guys have stayed in it all year and have actually got a lot better during the season. We talked about the first game (of the NLDS) chasing a lot. We got better (at) not chasing and getting the ball in the strike zone.”

In Game 5, Howie Kendrick ended the scoring with the most dramatic hit to date in Nats lore: a grand slam to deep center field off of Joe Kelly. Prior to that monster blast, he had gone 4-for-19 (.211) with just one RBI and three strikeouts in the series.

Soto-Rendon-Celebrate-Red-Sidebar.jpgRendon has been the consistent at-bat that teammates follow. He is methodical during his at-bats, regardless of how nasty the opposing pitcher is throwing that game, whether he’s 97 mph all over the zone or burying off-speed pitches, Rendon consistently pieced together at-bats until he could find a pitch he could hit. Of course the homer he hit was low in the zone, and Rendon was able to use his quick hands to pull it up and out of the stadium.

First baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who hit a three-run shot in Game 4, respects Rendon’s ability to make the most of at-bats that, on the surface, don’t appear to have the potential to produce a hit.

“There’s never any sense of panic,” Zimmerman said during the conference call. “His control of the strike zone, his approach, his plan, the ability to stick with his plan. And just, to hit the ball as well as he does and as hard as he does, a lot of guys, they look like they put a lot of effort into it, where it’s almost like, if he doesn’t try as hard he does better. And no moment is too big. He kind of treats every at-bat the same. For a guy like myself that’s pretty even-keel, I appreciate his mannerisms.”

Rendon and Soto have been the examples of clutch in this postseason for the Nats. As one might expect. The pair have combined to hit .343 with three doubles, three homers and nine RBIs.

After hitting just .221 with 24 strikeouts in September, Soto has returned to doing a great job of staying in the strike zone to find his hits, Martinez said.

“The big thing for Juan is staying in the strike zone and not chasing,” Martinez said. “(Wednesday), we talked about getting the ball up on (Clayton) Kershaw, and he got a ball up in the zone and hit it really well. We just got to get him to relax a little bit and just take his walks and, when he gets the ball in the strike zone, just stay in the middle of the field.”

Of course, the Nats need their potent 3-4 hitters to continue their late-inning magic against the Cardinals if they are going to have a shot at the next step.

But with the lineup as a whole not panicking during slow starts in games, the Nats’ bats have a good shot at maintaining the pressure they need to administer on St. Louis pitching for a full nine innings. If they can do that like they did against the Brewers and Dodgers, the Nats will be successful in the Championship Series too.

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