This week, if the Nationals open their traumatized eyes and glance at the postseason that's unfolding, they should be excused if they feel confused, almost betrayed by their game. They did everything right, or at least by the baseball book, to be rated the sport's favorite on opening day. Yet, in October, they're at home while the teams in the playoffs broke every rule, or reinvented them out of necessity. And one of them will win the World Series.
The teams that played this week demonstrated how baseball allows franchises to compete for titles by alternative and at times seditious methods.
The exciting, mysterious mix of brains, serendipity and dumb luck that always lands on a couple of happy teams suddenly befriended six of 10 teams in the playoffs. That made this baseball's Almost Impossible Season.
Huge losers became huge winners without making huge changes. Poor teams, clubs that hadn't won in eons and teams that couldn't even draw 20,000 fans, discovered ways to win 90-to-97 games. Meantime, eight of the 12 top payrolls, including the Nats, missed the postseason.
The Nats had a traditional set lineup and a chockablock rotation. They added a costly closer to a good bullpen. They had youth, morale, apparent depth and even a possible Hall of Fame manager. Yet they never even came close. Months of jittery nerves hurt. But the Nats illustrate something more fascinating: They actually did plan sensibly and may be vindicated someday, but conventional team building is no longer the only way to win big in baseball.
So, who actually made the playoffs and what can we learn from them?
— Teams given little chance by the same odds makers who had the Nats at 7-to-1: Pittsburgh and Cleveland 66-to-1, Boston and Oakland 30-to-1.
— Teams that drew nobody: Tampa Bay was last in attendance and the Indians 28th. Their crowds combined were just 5,000 more than the Nats.
— Teams that paid their players squat: The A's and Rays combined paid their players $118 million, barely more than the Nats $114 million.
— A team that hadn't had a winning season in 21 years: the Pirates.
— Three teams improved by 28, 24 and 15 wins, leaps that might seem saner if they came in three different years: the Red Sox, Indians and Pirates. Boston went from 93 loses to 97 wins, the Indians from 94 loses to 92 wins.
If we look at the teams that still had games this week, what do we see?
— Platoons to compensate for lack of stars.
— Mid-market free agents with stable attitudes, like Shane Victorino in Boston, who cost one-third as much as the Angels paid for Josh Hamilton.
— Emphasis on fundamentals. In Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Cleveland you can almost hear managers saying, "Half of you guys are here because other teams didn't want you. Do it our way, the right way, or leave."
— Radical defensive shifts, like the Rays who may someday have players stand on each other's shoulders, to capitalize on advanced stat metrics.
— Versatile athletes like the Rays' Ben Zobrist and Kelly Johnson, who can play infield or outfield and allow a manager to create any lineup that can be imagined to match up with a specific pitcher in a particular ballpark.
— Finding the one man who can impact a whole pitching staff. The Red Sox replaced Bobby Valentine with John Farrell, the ex-Toronto manager but an ex-Boston pitching coach; he knew how to help fix Jon Lester, Clay Buchholtz and John Lackey. The Pirates sought a catcher, Russell Martin, known for "handling pitchers." Who knows what that really means? But Martin had the second lowest "catcher's ERA" in the majors at 3.16.
Did we mention serendipity and luck? There's a ton of that.
The Cards and Braves, because they have long histories as model franchises, are seldom seen as unlikely winners. This year, to a degree, they were. Atlanta lost future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones and replaced him at third base with Chris Johnson in the Justin Upton trade. The obscure Johnson was third for the batting title and drove in two fewer runs than Upton.
The Most Out-Of-The-Blue Star was Evan Gattis, who beat substance abuse and returned to baseball after four years wandering the West. Now he's seen as such a power-hitting catcher that Atlanta may not re-sign five-time All-Star Brian McCann. Oh, sure, that was all in the Braves master plan.
The Cards lost a 16-3 starter, a 42-save closer, their shortstop and 2011 ace Chris Carpenter, who couldn't come back from surgery. By opening day, their win-the-Series odds dropped to 20-to-1, worse than the aged Phillies.
No problem. St. Louis got a career season from a second baseman with 199 hits, 55 doubles, 126 runs and a .318 average. You remember him from the Cards-Nats division series last year, right, Matt Carpenter! Of course you don't. Carpenter was a rookie utility man then, who played five positions and went 0-for-4 in the playoffs. How could St. Louis keep Carpenter, 27, locked in the minors for years, when he's been a house-afire since '10?
The prize for finding the Hope Diamond in a crackerjack box goes to the Red Sox. They did it twice. Sandy Koufax' best ERA was 1.73. This year, Buchholtz missed half his starts for the third time in his career. But instead of the 6-5 record that you might expect, he went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA.
No reliever let fewer men reach base than Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley, who once had an invisible 0.61 WHIP, a statistic that measures the number of baserunners a pitcher allows per inning pitched. Last winter, the Red Sox signed old Koji Uehara, 38, for two years for $9.25-million, about a third what the Nats paid for Rafael Soriano. So, Uehara, with a mere 89.2 mph fastball, had a 0.565 WHIP and 101 strikeouts in 74 innings.
Just two of the eight teams remaining in the playoffs fit a conventional mold: the store-bought Dodgers with the highest payroll in the game and the super-star-driven Tigers, losers of the '12 Series, with Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander and, now, (20-3) Max Scherzer.
In a sport where the average score has been 5-4 since the 19th century and half of all games are decided by one or two runs, the true margin of error between 92-win teams that make the playoffs and 86- or 85-win teams (like the Nats, Royals, Yankees and Orioles) that don't is actually very small.
Just one extra out, gained or lost, or one extra base, squandered or added, leads to that one extra decisive run. This is the battlefront on which large gaps in talent and payroll can be fought. We're in an era when this is almost a baseball holy war. On one side are teams making monstrous mal-investments, like the Angels and Jays. On the other are clubs which are simply smarter or wiser, like the Rays, A's and perhaps Indians, or better run throughout their organization, like the Cards, Braves and Reds.
Next season the Nats, now consigned to watching, will need to refine where they stand along this spectrum of constantly shifting choices. Enjoy it.