November 18, 2017

A Season Skitters Between Matt Wieters’ Wickets

October 13, 2017 by · 2 Comments 

Scroll to the end of the Washington Nationals 2017 season and you will see at the bottom of the final box score this entry:

“Fielding

E: Wieters 2 (throw, catcher interference). PB Wieters”

Therein lies their season. Javier Baez, whom Ron Darling described throughout the series as swinging at the ball as soon as he left the dugout, swung and missed on a fastball down. Wieters lowered his glove to catch the pitch but the ball sailed to the backstop without more than passing contact with Wieters’ mitt. He then threw the ball into right field allowing another run to score. If Wieters catches the third strike or at least corrals it in front of him and throws successfully to first base, the Cubs lead is only 5-4. Scherzer’s performance is disappointing, but not insurmountable. The calculus of the game is defined by the three Wieters miscues that gave the Chicago Cubs two unearned runs, which ultimately provided the winning margin.

Some will say that the Washington Nationals are cursed, that their inability to win in the post-season needs exorcism by rubber chickens or a Santeria shaman. In fact, Theo Epstein’s carefully constructed edifice laid siege to the one built by Mike Rizzo and the better team won. The hopes of the Washington Nationals in Game Five of the NLDS came down to Gio Gonzalez, the able third starter for Washington who won 15 games and pitched to a 2.96 ERA for the regular season. On paper he was as good as any starter the Cubbies had. But in truth, and in the mind of every Washington Nationals fan who is honest and not a gob-smacked sentimentalist, Gio was never going to get the job done. Sure, he had a very good season, but he is still the same old Gio.

Much of Gonzallez’s success can be laid at the feet of Matt Wieters. The tall catcher seemed the unflappable stalwart that the excitable Gonzalez needed during the season. When the high-strung lefty could not find the strike zone–79 walks in 201 innings, Wieters went to the mound and together they calmed the waters. And it worked until the NLDS began. Then the old Gio appeared, the one who has lost something off his fastball and cannot locate his curve reliably. He was joined by Wieters who could not hit a lick and was always at bat when one was most needed. It is on the shoulders of Gonzalez and Wieters that the fate of Mike Rizzo’s 2017 Nationals came to rest last night. And the results were as ugly as anything seen at Nationals Park since the team turned the corner and became one of the best in baseball.

It is easy to forget all of the many problems that plagued the 2017 Washington Nationals at the outset. It is easy to look past the fact that when pitchers and catchers reported in February, the team had no closer and Derek Norris was penciled in behind the plate. It was a team counting on Ryan Zimmerman to find some semblance of his former self with not real reason to believe it possible. It was a team hoping that newly acquired Adam Eaton would be worth three of the best pitching talents in the organization.

Given those shortcomings going into the season and the injuries that it endured, Dusty Baker and Mike Rizzo did about as well as they could. They could have gotten lucky and made it past the Cubs. Max Scherzer pitching relief behind Gio was a brilliant stroke. There was not a fan in the stadium who believed that after getting Chris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in the top of the fifth inning, Scherzer would implode and give up a four-spot. No, that piece of genius should have worked, but it did not. Eight runs should have been enough, but they weren’t. Any high school coach worth his salt can tell you it is the weak links that tell the tale. Matt Wieters and Gio Gonzalez were two of the more suspect actors when the post-season began and the spot light found them in Game Five. End of season.

The bad news is that Gio Gonzalez is 32 and will not likely be able to have another bounce back season in 2018. He is penciled in as the third starter and there is a better than average chance he will be throwing to Matt Wieters again next season. That possibility should raise huge red flags in the Washington front office. Hopefully the Nationals think tank will have their thinkibng altered by the experiences of this post season collapse. Will they blame Dusty? That would be the easy solution. Or will they finally learn the difference between the attractive marketing possibilities that fan favorites like Gio Gonzalez present, and the down side of their actual performance when the chips are all in the middle of the table?

Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are two of the best pitchers in the game today, but behind them there are too many question marks. The post season requires a rotation with real depth. However successful Gio may be in his last season with Washington, he is more likely to be a decent 4th starter next season than the quality number three he was in 2017. He is getting older and the stuff is not as good as it was in 2012. The top of the Washington rotation needs help.

Finding a solution at catcher should be at least as much a priority. Even if Wieters comes back, there needs to be someone being groomed to take over at the end of the season. There are capable catchers coming through the system including Raudy Read who got a look in September. Regardless the situation with Wieters, by year’s end in 2018, someone else should be behind the plate for the post season. A good defensive catcher who hits .226 is far better than a defensive liability who hits .226. A point that was made with deafening clarity last night.

Mike Rizzo has made defense a hall mark of his team and at every position he has a standout. There was one lone exception and very predictably fate found him and proved the team’s undoing. Waiting for the market to move in Rizzo’s direction last off-season left the Nationals without options at catcher and in the bullpen. The front office should be more aggressive in seeking solid if not spectacular solutions for 2018. The NL East is still one of the weakest in baseball, but the opportunities it presents will not last forever.

Comments

2 Responses to “A Season Skitters Between Matt Wieters’ Wickets”
  1. SUPREMOCOLLECTOR says:

    EXTREMELY WELL WRITTEN AND VERY MUCH TO THE POINT ARTICLE …

  2. Simon says:

    I saw Gonzalez pitch Game 1 of the NLDS at Busch in 2012. He didn’t have his stuff that day, either. 1K and 7BB from what I can remember.

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