WASHINGTON — Former Orioles catcher Matt Wieters helped guide Washington Nationals star Stephen Strasburg through a terrific performance in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Friday night.
The Nats offense didn't cooperate and the Chicago Cubs took advantage of a couple of unearned runs to open the playoffs with a victory, but Strasburg took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and set a club postseason strikeout record.
Just a hunch, but you'd have to guess that Wieters hasn't been waxing nostalgic for those halcyon days trying to squeeze a win out of Ubaldo Jiménez.
Wieters settled in quickly with a star-studded Nats rotation that also features two-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, 15-win left-hander Gio González and solid veteran Tanner Roark. And he's catching in the playoffs for the fourth time in the past six years while his former team is trying to figure out how to bounce back from a late-season collapse that dragged it to its first losing season since 2011.
Obviously, Wieters left Baltimore on good terms and wishes the Orioles the best in the future, but he clearly is right where he wants to be.
"Yeah, you want to play on winning teams and give yourself a chance," Wieters said. "The more chances you get to get in the playoffs, the better chance you have to reach the ultimate goal and win a ring."
This year, the playoffs never seemed to be in doubt for the Nats with four starters winning at least 13 games and two No. 5 guys who combined to win in double digits. The Orioles, meanwhile, had one starter (Dylan Bundy) with as many as 13 victories and did not have a single starter with an ERA under 4.24.
"It's fun to be able to mix and match pitches and Stras was able to throw any pitch he wanted to at any time [on Friday]," Wieters said, "but really the whole staff has been a staff that can do things that may not be conventional. But with their stuff and their ability, it will work out."
Wieters is a humble guy and he'll be the first to tell you that the Nats rotation put up some pretty good numbers before he got to Washington. But González, the Nats' Game 2 starter in the NLDS, gushed over Wieters' preparation and ability to call a game.
"As far as what Matt has been doing, he's been great," González said. "He's a big strike zone. He's hard to miss. He has a good game plan every time he goes out there. And the same thing with [pitching coach Mike Maddux] — we sit down and go over the strategy of what we have to do and everything. It's just putting some great minds together and getting going. I'm just the guy who throws the baseball. The great minds are the ones behind the plate and the one in the dugout.
"Wieters has been a huge help to my success this year. I do not take anything away from what he's done and how great he's been. Again, I'm not the only one that's had great success. Our entire rotation and even guys in the bullpen, dealing with him and getting to pitch to him, it's been incredible."
Wieters chuckled at that characterization after Friday night's game.
"I think when you're Gio and you have a great breaking ball, a great changeup and a fastball you can locate, it can make any catcher seem like he prepares well and is a smart catcher," the 31-year-old Wieters said, "so I'm not going to take all that credit, that's for sure."
It's impossible to say with any certainty whether the Orioles would have had a better season with Wieters behind the plate for most games instead of Welington Castillo. Regardless of who had been catching, the Orioles would have been at a talent deficit in their rotation to almost every other team in either league.
From an offensive standpoint, the advantage went solidly to the Orioles. Wieters batted a career-low .225 and combined with backup José Lobaton to hit 14 homers and drive in 63 runs. Castillo batted .282 and combined with Caleb Joseph to be one of the most productive catching duos in the game with 28 homers and 81 RBIs.
Still, Wieters adapted quickly to a new pitching staff and a new league in which the strategic aspects of the game presented a brand new set of challenges for a guy who had played his entire career in the American League.
"It's definitely different," he said. "You have to be able to maneuver a lineup a little bit more in the American League, but once you get to the playoffs every lineup is so deep it has an American League feel. The pitcher can be pinch-hit for at any time, so you kind of pitch a little bit more like an American League style in the playoffs then during the regular season."
It's possible that Wieters could end up back in the AL next season if he doesn't pick up his $10.5 million player option in 2018, after he signed with the Nats during spring training. But — with his team scrambling to get past the Cubs in the first full round of the playoffs — that's obviously a story for another day.