Time off often the enemy of momentum for playoff teams

After sweeping the Cardinals to win the National League pennant, the Nationals are a team hot to play in the World Series. There’s only one problem: The Nationals aren’t sure if they going to start the World Series in Houston or New York.

While the Astros and Yankees play for the American League pennant, the Nationals return to spring training mode in the quiet of Nationals Park, hoping to maintain the sharpness that helped them sweep the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.

That’s easier said than done.

Houston leads the Yankees, three games to one, in the best-of-seven AL Championship Series with Game 5 Friday night at Yankee Stadium.

The World Series opens in the AL city on Tuesday. The Nationals beat St. Louis 7-4 in Game 4 at Nationals Park on Tuesday. So the Nationals have a week to prepare. They took Wednesday and Thursday off and begin workouts today at Nationals Park.

It’s a good predicament to have, but a week off before the World Series isn’t ideal.

The Nationals would prefer this as opposed to watching everything on TV from their couches. But finding ways to stay sharp on a cool October afternoon isn’t easy.

History has mixed results in the World Series for teams with extra time to prepare. Of teams since 1969 that have had at least six days off before the World Series, the records are 3-3.

The Philadelphia Phillies have won and lost with at least six days off before the World Series. They defeated Tampa Bay for the title in 2008 and lost in 2009 to the Yankees.

Relief pitcher Brad Lidge was on both Phillies teams and said the layoff is a challenge.

“Four or five days or more is tough,” Lidge said in an e-mail. “It’s bad no matter what teams say, more for the hitters than the pitchers.

“You don’t need rest when you are about to play in the World Series. What you need is to stay hot and keep everything rolling. The more days off, the harder that is to stay locked in.

“During the break, pitchers need to find a way to try to throw at as high of an intensity in their bullpens as possible.’‘

Hitters take live batting practice, where pitchers pitch to their teammates in simulated situations. There are intrasquad games and some teams have even flown their team to the instructional league to play a live game.

“But that doesn’t come close to duplicating game adrenaline,” Lidge said. “No one wants to do an intrasquad or live pitching against your own guys since injuries are possible. All-Star break length is fine. Longer than that isn’t.’‘

The 2007 Colorado Rockies had eight days off after winning the NL pennant and were swept in the World Series by the Boston Red Sox. The Rockies finished 21-8 and beat the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series.

Then, after the layoff, they lost Game 1 of the World Series in Fenway Park 13-1.

They were outscored 29-10 and outhit 47-29 for the series by the Red Sox. During the layoff, Denver had snow, so the Rockies moved indoors between the NLCS and World Series.

The Detroit Tigers had to deal with long layoffs twice, in 2006 and 2012. The first time, the Tigers looked rusty in their World Series opener against St. Louis, making three errors and losing 7-2 in a game in which the Cardinals beat rookie pitcher Justin Verlander. Detroit won Game 2, but lost the series after getting swept in three games in Busch Stadium.

During the week off, bad weather forced Tigers manager Jim Leyland to abandon outdoor workouts at Comerica Park. He moved his team across the street to Ford Field, the domed stadium and home of the NFL Lions. There, the Tigers had makeshift diamonds and played simulated games.

In 2012, the Tigers had five days off off before the World Series and wound up losing to the San Francisco Giants. Verlander, now with the Houston Astros, was still bitter about the time off during an interview with the Detroit News in May.

The Cy Young-wining pitcher explained that winning too quickly was a negative if the team couldn’t keep going without a delay.

“The reason (the Tigers lost) was the time off before the two World Series,” Verlander said. “We had the talent to do it. When it comes to playoff time, it’s a roll of the dice. It comes down to the hottest team at the right time. I think we were that team, twice, and the week layoff before the World Series cooled us off. It sucks; that’s the name of the game.

“It’s probably the one sport, this sport, where the time off like that wouldn’t help you. Every other sport I think it’s a benefit, but this one, it is absolutely a negative.”

According to the newspaper, Verlander points to his 2017 Houston Astros, which needed seven games to get by the New York Yankees in the ALCS. That series kept them fresh, and they won the World Series in seven games against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In 1995, the Atlanta Braves had six days off after winning the NL pennant and beat Cleveland in the World Series, thanks to Tom Glavine’s seven shutout innings in a 1-0 victory in the clinching Game 6. The following year, the Yankees beat the Orioles for the AL pennant, took six days off and then beat the Braves in the World Series.

In four previous division series appearances, the Nationals cruised in September and had a few days off while the one-game wild card playoff took place. The Nationals lost first-round series to the Cardinals, Giants, Cubs and Dodgers.

This season was different. The Nationals weren’t guaranteed their wild card playoff spot until they swept the Phillies and Cleveland in series at Nationals Park. The Nationals had a day off before the Brewers came to town for the wild card game.

Now the Nationals are dealing with another wait-and-see mode.

But it is better than the alternative.