The Sweet Madness of Pennant Race Baseball
It is difficult to imagine that two baseball games could have been as different as those played by Washington this weekend. As good as the Nationals were on Saturday, they were equally moribund on Sunday. On Saturday the Nationals won a 10-4 laugher in front of 40,000 fans who went home dancing on air. Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman hit three-run home runs. Gio Gonzalez won his twentieth game and Adam LaRoche equaled his all-time high in single season home runs with his 32nd.
A NL East Championship and a commanding presence in the playoffs seemed just around the corner Saturday afternoon and every fan leaving the park was ready for the games to start the next day. Then the sun rose on a new day and it was as if the two teams switched uniforms to play the next game. It is pennant race baseball and the mood swings are maddening. It is a wild roller coaster for the emotions, but all you can do is hang on and enjoy the ride.
On Sunday Bryce Harper lost the ball in the sun and Jayson Werth did it an inning later just to make “the Kid” feel better. Both of those routine fly balls fell to earth within a few feet of the two outfielders and ignited rallies for Milwaukee. Those and other miscues committed by the Nationals were instrumental in forging the final margin of the game, a dismal 6-2 affair in which the Nationals squandered what little offense they managed.
Milwaukee acted every bit like the team that was scratching for its existence and under the same sky they managed to lose absolutely zero fly balls in the sun. There were more errors than showed in the box score and the Nationals looked like a team that had been out late the night before. The team that appeared ready for the playoffs on Saturday had vanished in scant hours.
In the lean years no one would have cared. Washington fans would have packed the score sheets, gone home early and thought nothing of it. But now we are in first place with ten games left in the 2012 season and we have learned to care about “magic numbers.” Like the players, we want that first NL East Championship–the first of any kind by a Washington team since the ’33 Nationals won the American League title.
You don’t have to be a math whiz to count the games down. Atlanta loses; Washington Wins; the magic number goes down. On Sunday the number remained ever so painfully un-moved. The number was six at the start of play Sunday and there it sits still.
As easy as it was to anticipate the Saturday game with Gio Gonzalez pitching, it was worrisome to consider just what Chien-ming Wang would do on Sunday. Each lived up to their billing. Gio Gonzalez pitched a masterpiece that was worthy of a potential Cy Young Award winner. Wang gave up eight hits over four innings, two runs and was lucky to escape with as little damage as that. But he deserved better support in the field that he or subsequent pitchers got.
The Brewers are fighting elimination from the Wild Card race and they played like a team that has its back to the wall. There is one more game against them on this home stand. On Monday former Washington farm hand, Marco Estrada, will take the mound against Jordan Zimmermann. The match up should be better than on Sunday.
The Monday game takes on added significance because there are six games on the road that follow: three against the Phillies in Philadelphia and three against the Cardinals in St. Louis. The games do not get easier and that is the lesson of the pennant race. There are no easy games in late September when everything is on the line and everyone is playing for keeps.
The tension just ramps up another notch in October. There is a new sense of urgency. When the team is trailing and the magic number is sitting there standing still, anticipation builds before each at bat, every half inning. Washington fans have just begun to discover that with the joys of the pennant race come the tribulations of waiting for the paint to dry on that shiny new Chevy. You cannot drive away in it until it is ready.
It is a sweet madness and we will miss it when it is gone.