- The Washington Times - Friday, October 3, 2014

Two days before the National League Division Series began, the San Francisco Giants were under the lights in Pittsburgh, fighting for their postseason lives in a do-or-die wild card game against the Pirates.

The Washington Nationals, meanwhile, held an intrasquad scrimmage at an empty stadium. Though it was designed to replicate an actual game and described by Adam LaRoche as “pretty intense,” it also featured “Team Alpha” facing “The Face Eaters.” It just wasn’t the same.

“You never want to sit for an extended period of time,” LaRoche said. “It’s no excuse. It’s just something we would rather not do.”

The different circumstances were unavoidable. But for Washington, they were also costly.

In a 3-2 loss in Game 1 of the NLDS, the Nationals were held hitless for four innings and only scored twice, each on a solo home run in the seventh inning. The offense sputtered in high-pressure situations, and several players showed signs of rust at the plate.

A veteran group with several holdovers from teams that have won two of the past four World Series titles, the Giants were also in rhythm. The Nationals were not. And it showed.


SEE ALSO: LOVERRO: Not to put too ‘fine’ a point on it: Strasburg not good enough in Game 1


“Any time you get three, four days off and you’re used to playing every day, you get out of your rhythm a little bit. And I think it showed kind of with us,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “But at the same time, there’s no excuses. You’ve got to go out there and get it done regardless.”

To a man, the Nationals refused to cite the four-day layoff as an excuse. When asked about it, manager Matt Williams only credited Giants starter Jake Peavy, who only allowed two hits in 5 2/3 innings of work. Catcher Wilson Ramos stressed the fact that had several days of practice and took live at-bats against live pitchers. Denard Span agreed.

“We still came here every day and practiced,” he said. I’m not going to use that as an excuse at all.”

The differences were as much about momentum as they were about timing at the plate. While the Nationals had long secured their place in the postseason, the Giants didn’t know they would still be playing Friday just 36 hours earlier. LaRoche alluded to the dangers of a situation like this less than two weeks earlier.

“I don’t think necessarily the best team wins the World Series every year,” he said from the visiting clubhouse in Miami in mid-September. “It’s a lot of times guys scrambling in late, sneaking in and playing a bunch of basically playoff games for two weeks and carrying that momentum on through.”

And the Giants are not just a team with momentum. They are also a veteran team, with a core group that has now won nine consecutive playoff games and 23 of its last 31.

“These guys, they have been through it,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “You know, they have a calmness about them. When you have your back as many times against the wall as you can in the postseason, that experience is invaluable.”

As a result, the Giants were often able to make the most of their opportunities Friday.

In the third inning, when LaRoche fielded a bunt and tried to throw out lead runner Travis Ishikawa at second base rather than take the easy out at first, a minor hiccup became a serious jam. When Ramos and Stephen Strasburg confused signals, resulting in a passed ball, Ishikawa advanced to third. Joe Panik drove him in.

The Nationals, on the other hand, loaded the bases with two outs in the sixth but didn’t score. They put two runners aboard with one out in the eighth, and again failed to produce.

“One swing of the bat can mean the difference in our game today,” Williams said. “It didn’t happen. We’ll see if it can happen tomorrow.”

It was a lack of rhythm, a lack of momentum and, perhaps in part, a lack of significant time in the grinder of the postseason. Though the Giants didn’t necessarily view it that way.

“The only thing with experience is there’s kind of a background of confidence and understanding of the emotions,” Giants right fielder Hunter Pence said. “It’s the same game that you always play, there’s just a lot of emotions added to it, a lot of adrenaline. These are two good teams, really good teams, playing good baseball. Game 1, we found a way to score one more.”

Perhaps Saturday will be different. With Jordan Zimmermann on the mound, the Nationals will try to rediscover the rhythm they had for much of the final month of the season. They will look to bounce back from a loss as they have over and over again, rebuilding the momentum they were previously unable to maintain.

“Everybody in the clubhouse right now I think feels the same,” Ramos said. “We lost the first one, but tomorrow’s another day. We have to keep fighting.”

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