The Nats season came to an end with Tuesday's 3-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants in Game 4 of the NLDS. As was the case all series long, the Nats offense fell flat. Gio Gonzalez made one error and then compounded it with two more mistakes. Matt Williams' handling of the bullpen... left a lot to be desired. The Nats lost three one run games in this series, and Williams made some very questionable decisions in two of those losses.
Let's get down to the nitty gritty. We'll go chronologically today...
Gio Gonzalez and the Snowball Effect
Those of you who have watched Gio pitch with the Nats since they acquired him prior to the 2012 season know exactly what I'm talking about. Gio is a very emotional pitcher. There are times when this is great. When he pitches well, Gio's enthusiasm is infectious. However, when he starts getting upset about not getting a call or making one mistake, it tends to be something that affects his performance for a few more hitters. Rather than just focusing on the next pitch, he becomes a snowball rolling downhill. I can't seem to find any gifs, so I'll link you to the highlight package of the second inning at MLB.com.
With a runner on first and one out in the second inning, Gio induced a weak grounder back to the pitcher's mound off the bat of Juan Perez. Gio appeared to rush it because he was going to try to turn the double play. The ball didn't take a true hop and rolled underneath Gio's glove, bouncing towards second base where nobody could make a play.
He made an error. It happens. Put it behind you. Focus. On to the next batter.
The Giants pitcher, Ryan Vogelsong, is up next, and we know that he's going to bunt the runners over. Gio can take that free out for the second out of the inning and then all he has to do is execute against Gregor Blanco to escape the jam. Alas, Gio let things snowball. As expected, Vogelsong laid down a bunt down the third base line. It was a good bunt. I might even say it was a very good bunt (if there is such a thing).
Anthony Rendon was playing in on the grass at third and it was his ball all the way. Gio Gonzalez, a left-handed pitcher who would have been fielding the ball with his back to first base, ran to try and field the bunt. In doing so, he both confused Rendon into thinking Gio was going to make the play and cut Rendon off from making what was a fairly routine play on a sacrifice bunt. Gio turned a routine sac bunt into a bunt single.
He should probably have been out of the inning (simply by taking the one out against Perez and then probably retiring Vogelsong with two outs and a runner on second). At worst, if he could have just stayed out of Rendon's way, he should have been dealing with runners on second and third with two outs. Instead, he was now dealing with a bases loaded, one out jam. Gio wasn't done letting things snowball.
Gregor Blanco came up next. If the Giants were healthy, Blanco would be their fourth outfielder splitting time with Michael Morse in left field. Blanco's not a bad hitter, and actually had reverse splits this season (hit .296 vs. LHP and .243 vs. RHP), but he isn't a major threat with the bat. He runs well, so a double play seemed unlikely. Still, in the second inning, you're focused more on getting an out than trying to make the perfect pitch(es) to try and strike him out. Gio needed to limit the damage to just one run. Instead, this happened:
There were groans that Gio got squeezed in the game thread, but it simply wasn't the case. Gio threw four pitches to Blanco. None were in the zone. Pitch 1 was up and in. Pitch 2 was high. Pitch 3 and 4 were down and away. Gio walked a decent hitter on four pitches with the bases loaded. Blanco is the kind of guy that you challenge in this situation.
Then Gio did what he often mysteriously does. He found himself. He attacked Joe Panik, getting ahead 0-2 before Panik hit a ground ball that was hit too slowly for the Nats to turn a double play. He got Posey to ground out to Anthony Rendon on the first pitch. In fact, Gio would go on to retire the final eight batters he faced, but the damage was done.
Much will be made (both later in this article and on sports radio, other articles, etc.) about how Matt Williams managed his bullpen in the seventh inning as if it were a game in the middle of May. In my eyes, this is certainly true. Given what was at stake, Williams shouldn't have managed a tie game in the seventh inning differently than he would manage with a one run lead in the seventh (or eighth... or ninth), but he might have. Gio turned one bad play into a second... and then he walked a run in on four pitches against a pretty average hitter. That can't happen!
You made a mistake. It happened... It's over. Move on to the next play.
The top of the fifth inning
The Nats trailed 2-0 entering the inning, but Ian Desmond led off with a single to left field. Bryce Harper stepped in and had his first of three tremendous plate appearances on the day:
Harper fell behind 1-2, chasing a curveball below the zone for strike two. The patience he showed in spitting at ball three was terrific. That was just off the corner. Watching the game, I thought he might get rung up, but he got away with taking it. He followed that up by doing what you need to do (and most Nats hitters didn't this series) when the opposition is working you away-away-away... He ripped the ball the other way down the third base line. Desmond came around to score from first on the double, which put the tying run in scoring position with nobody out.
Ramos really had a bad series. His at bat here may have been the worst plate appearance he had in all four games, though. The Nats trailed 2-1 with Harper on second and nobody out. I heard some arguments to have him bunt there, but I disagree with them. He laid down a nice bunt with two strikes in Monday's win, but you have to let him swing the bat here. Ramos is not an experienced bunter, but he has shown an ability to hit the ball to the opposite field.
In fact, when he's going well (which he certainly wasn't in this series), he's usually driving the ball to right field or center field. It's possible that sending him to the plate with the goal of hitting the ball to the right side could actually have helped get him going. He just needs to be aware of the situation, have a patient at bat, and focus on trying to get a pitch that he can drive the other way. It's OK if he hits it on the ground, provided that the ball is hit behind Harper and he can advance to third. While Pence has a good arm in right field, it's fine if Ramos flies out to medium-deep right field because Harper runs well enough to tag and advance.
Instead, let's look at the one pitch Ramos saw in this situation that required him to be patient and try and hit the ball to the opposite field:
That's a sinker in on his hands well off the inside corner. If you had to pitch the worst possible pitch and location for Ramos to hit the ball to the right side, this was it! Ramos should be looking for something on the outer third of the plate that he can take to right field. Instead, he got anxious and popped the ball up to shortstop. Harper didn't advance.
After Ramos failed to get the runner over, Cabrera needed to focus on trying to get a hit regardless of which area of the field he hits it to. Cabrera saw two straight curveballs and grounded the second one (off the outside corner) to the shortstop, bringing the pitcher's spot up with Harper (still) on second and two outs.
Pinch hitting for Gio
Even with Gio suddenly cruising a bit, you have to hit for him here. The tying run is on second base with just thirteen outs remaining in the season. Because you have to treat it like it's the last game of the season, all hands are on deck. Both Tanner Roark and Stephen Strasburg are available out of the bullpen, so you worry less about how deep Gio works in the ballgame and take your shot. Williams did just that, calling on Nate Schierholtz. After falling behind in the count 1-2, Schierholtz worked a good plate appearance and drew a walk to set up Denard Span with two on and two out.
Span let the very best pitch he saw in the AB go by, a first pitch curveball that hung over the middle of the plate. After working it to a 2-2 count, he chased a curveball below the knees and grounded meekly to first base to end the threat. One last time, the Nats got a runner to second base with nobody out and didn't even advance him to third.
The first bullpen gaffe that Williams got away with
Tanner Roark replaced Gio in the fifth inning, needing a shutdown after the Nats had cut the deficit in half. He immediately got into trouble, allowing back to back singles to Gregor Blanco and Joe Panik in front of the heart of the Giants order. Roark then got a fly ball to center field off the bat of Buster Posey for the first out, though Blanco advanced to third. Hunter Pence reached on a fielder's choice where.... well... Adam LaRoche just threw the ball home rather than looking Blanco back to third (where he stayed). This loaded the bases for Pablo Sandoval.
As we've mentioned several times in the past few days, Sandoval is a switch hitter but he's far better batting from the left side. With Sandoval and two left-handed hitters due up, now is the time that Williams should go get Roark and turn to left-hander Jerry Blevins (who had been warming already). Instead, he stuck with Roark. Roark fell behind Sandoval 2-0 before fooling Sandoval with a changeup down and in. With the bases loaded and a 2-0 count, it was a gutsy call to go to an off-speed pitch. Sandoval was sitting dead red, and popped it up to LaRoche.
Williams then decided it was time to go get Roark, who had allowed a home run to Brandon Belt in the 18th inning in Game 2. Blevins came in and got a huge strikeout. Blevins would later pitch a 1-2-3 seventh. There were times this season when I railed on Blevins a bit (more Williams' usage of him), but he was nails down the stretch and in this series.
Hunter Pence's robbery
With the Nationals trailing 2-1 and one out in the sixth inning, Jayson Werth smoked an 0-2 pitch into right field. While Werth went 1 for 17 in the series, he hit the ball harder than those results would indicate. Most either hung up long enough for the Giants to make a play or were right at somebody. This one was.... well... see for yourself.
Given how successful Pence has been throughout his career despite the fact that he looks like he's going to fall over with every step he takes, there's no guarantee that he wouldn''t have popped right up and found a way to grab that ball before it rolls away into no-man's land if he hadn't made the catch. Seeing as how he banged into the chain link fence, the likelihood is that the ball was going to roll around for a little while before the Giants could get the ball in. Pence stole at least a double on this play, though it's hard to imagine Werth not ending up at third if he doesn't catch it. Trailing by one run in the sixth inning, getting a runner to third base with one out would have been huge. Alas, Pence made a fantastic play.
One last Adam LaRoche vs. Javier Lopez matchup
This actually happened directly after Pence's insane grab above. Heading into the series, I didn't think that Ryan Zimmerman was healthy enough to come in and play first base. The fact that Williams didn't counter Bochy when he went to Lopez to face LaRoche seemed to confirm this. LaRoche put the ball in play against Lopez, which was an improvement (0 for 11, 9 K lifetime). Unfortunately, he flied out weakly to left field.
Bruce Bochy's error?
When I previewed the series last week, one of the major edges I gave the Giants was in the managerial department. Considering that the Giants won three one-run games and Matt Williams' decision making has gotten hammered in two of them, this held true. Bochy wasn't perfect, though.
In the seventh inning, with the Giants leading 2-1, Bochy turned to rookie flamethrower Hunter Strickland. It looks like the Giants have a good one here. He brings the gas, and hit triple digits on the gun a few times in this series. He has a pretty good breaking ball that he throws along with that overpowering fastball. He even seemed to have a decent third offering with his changeup. However, we learned in Game 1 that he may not be the greatest matchup against a lefty that can catch up to that heat. Bryce Harper hit one into the upper deck against him in Nats Park. Asdrubal Cabrera drilled one into the bullpen as well. With a one run lead, Bochy re-created that Game 1 matchup between Strickland and Harper. Harper worked his way ahead in the count 3-1 and then.......
Oh my... The only question was whether it was fair or foul. It was hit so far and high that we can't even follow the trajectory to see it. At any rate, it was fair and (given the opponent and ballpark the Nats were playing in) positively Bondsian. Almost nobody gets a splash hit into McCovey Cove without a bounce. The Nats tied it at 2-2, and suddenly all was right in the world until......
Matt Williams decided to do some managin'
There's a running joke here at Federal Baseball about it being the most important game of the season (ITMIGOTS). For the second straight day, Tuesday's game was the most important game of the season. Matt Williams managed it like it was a game in the middle of May. All hands were on deck. As Williams emphasized prior to the game, Stephen Strasburg was available to work out of the bullpen. Even Jordan Zimmermann would be available in an emergency situation.*
*After the game, Williams said that Strasburg was available only in an emergency situation.
The Giants had the top of the order coming up in a game that the Nats had just tied 2-2. The first two hitters to come to the plate would be lefties Gregor Blanco and "Babe Descalso award winner" Joe Panik. It was reasonable to go to Matt Thornton here, but Blanco (reverse split mentioned above) and Panik aren't necessarily hitters that you plan matchups around. You do that for Brandon Belt... particularly considering that when Belt bats, there are no real right-handed threats that are coming up for a while. It's the most important game of the season and Williams has an ace in the hole that he's added to his bullpen. You go to your best reliever right here, and that's Tyler Clippard. Anyway, he went to Thornton, who retired Blanco and gave up a single to Panik.
Up next is the Giants heart of the order, with two hitters who have dominated left-handers throughout their career. Buster Posey, a former MVP, batting champ, and clearly the Giants best hitter has batted .333/.393/.578 in his career against LHP (.299/.366/.450 vs. RHP). As Dave Cameron points out, that's a 168 wRC+, which is 68% better than a league-average hitter. It's better than Miguel Cabrera's wRC+ was when he won the triple crown two years ago. You cannot allow Buster Posey to face a left-handed pitcher in this situation! Williams did.
All things considered, it probably could have turned out worse. Posey smoked a ball to center field that bounced right in front of Denard Span for a single, but Panik couldn't advance beyond second base. Now Williams decided that it was time to go get his lefty. Instead of going to get one of his top two relievers (Clippard or Storen) or his ace in the hole (Strasburg), Williams decided that in a tie game in the seventh inning of the most important game of the season, it was time to go to.... rookie Aaron Barrett????
The decision to go to Aaron Barrett
When we did our exercise during the final week of the season nitpicking about who would make the final roster, we had Barrett on there. He figured to be the fourth or fifth right-handed arm out of the bullpen, but we had him making the roster. I like Barrett and think that he has a future as a leverage reliever on this ballclub if he can improve his command.
Despite some midseason struggles, Barrett had a good rookie campaign for the Nats, finishing with a 2.66 ERA, a 1.30 WHIP. He struggled a bit with two things... facing LHH (.264/.377/.373 line against) and his control (4.43 BB/9). He relies on a sinker/slider combo, which made him devastating against RHH (.190/.277/.253) this season. As Cameron points out in the link, the slider was taken off the table because of the situation when he entered. With the go-ahead run on second and one out, the Nats couldn't afford a wild pitch that could advance Panik to third base.
Barrett had made one appearance in the series, coming in to face Hunter Pence to lead off the twelfth inning of Game 2. He didn't look very comfortable in that at bat as he fell behind 3-0, missing badly (the first pitch missed so badly it doesn't even show up on Pitchf/x). He got the benefit of a high strike (that wasn't really in the zone) to get the count to 3-1 before Pence tagged a leadoff double. Jerry Blevins came in and did what Jerry Blevins has done for the past month.... He dominated and bailed Barrett out, keeping the game tied.
On Tuesday, Williams called on Barrett to face Pence again...
Barrett once again fell behind Pence 3-0 in a situation where a walk would put the go-ahead run on third base with one out. Though he battled back in the count, Barrett would eventually lose Pence on a 3-2 sinker that was an easy take.
Barrett then faced Sandoval, who (once again) is considerably better from the left side. Not only is he better from the left side, but he's now facing a pitcher that doesn't have any real good weapons against left-handed batters. Barrett fell behind 2-1 before uncorking a sinker in the dirt that Ramos couldn't keep in front of him. All three runners advanced, with Panik scoring to give the Giants a 3-2 lead. Then things got worse (better?) as Barrett was asked to throw an intentional ball four. He airmailed it to the backstop and Posey attempted to score from third. Ramos made a nice heads up play to get to the ball quickly and get the ball to Barrett, who tagged Posey for the second out.
So many things that I just told you that say that Barrett was about the worst choice that Williams could have made there.
- He's not their best reliever, and there's no greater leverage situation than facing the heart of the order with two runners on base and one out in the seventh inning of a tie game in the most important game of the season.
- He had control problems throughout the season
- He made an appearance earlier in the series against this hitter and hadn't looked comfortable dealing with the pressure, falling behind him 3-0 before getting tagged on a "get me over" fastball
- Allowing him to face Sandoval after he had walked Pence set up a situation where Sandoval had an ideal matchup against a right-hander who struggles to get lefties out.
In the highest leverage situation of the season, Williams turned to a rookie who was his fifth or sixth best reliever. When asked about the decision to go to Thornton and Barrett in his press conference, here's what Williams had to say:
"Because those are our seventh-inning guys. That’s how we set this up. We had two lefties at the top of the inning, and if we got to the righties, we were going to Barrett. That’s what he’s done for us all year long. We’re certainly not going to use our closer in the seventh inning."
I went on a sizable rant in the comments of a postgame thread earlier this season about the "closer" label and formulaic bullpen usage. Williams was guilty of formulaic bullpen usage on Tuesday. Use your relief ace in the highest leverage situation. Don't create roles where players are limited to pitch based on the inning. With the season on the line, Matt Williams sounded an awful lot like this guy sounded after a mid-September loss.
There's nothing in Tyler Clippard's contract that says he isn't allowed to pitch in the seventh inning. Drew Storen's not going to refuse to pitch again this season if he comes into the highest leverage spot an inning or two earlier than he's used to coming in. The decision was terrible. The justification in the post-game press conference was worse.
Truth be told, going to Soriano didn't end up hurting the Nats. He escaped Barrett's jam without further damage by getting a liner to left field. He even worked around a leadoff single in the eighth inning to keep the deficit at one so the Nats could take one last crack at saving the season. Still, I'd love to hear the thought process that led to bringing him in.
Soriano struggled throughout the second half and barely made the postseason roster. Now trailing 3-2, the Nats absolutely couldn't afford to give up another run. Williams still had Clippard, Storen, and Strasburg available to come in and keep that score right where it was. Williams picked Soriano. It worked out, but it made no sense.
Hunter Wendelstedt's #Umpshow
Edit: Found a gif of the play in question... There's also an article up at Fangraphs about check swings/appeals
With one out in the ninth inning and a 1-2 count to Ian Desmond, Santiago Casilla threw a curveball down and away. Desmond attempted to check his swing. I didn't think he went. Most of us didn't think he went. Matt Vasgersian and John Smoltz didn't think he went. Hunter Wendlestedt thought he went. The problem here is this: Hunter Wendlestedt was the home plate umpire.
As we watched a brutal strike zone (equal time... for both teams, though it certainly felt like it worse for the Nats) throughout most of this series, we saw that the home plate umpires (whether it was Wendelstedt, Tom Hallion, Laz Diaz, or Vic Carapazza) have enough on their minds when they're trying to call the strike zone. While the strike zones irritated me throughout the series, I'll admit that it's a difficult and thankless job.
Part of the reason that a first base umpire (when a RHH is batting) and third base umpire (when a LHH is batting) are there is to assist the home plate umpire on check swing calls. This is again partially because the home plate umpire should be focused on determining whether or not a pitch is in the strike zone. They shouldn't be focusing on just how far a batter has gone on a check swing. The first or third base umpire generally has a better angle on whether the bat traveled across the plate anyway.
So... with that said. Ask for help! It's the job of first base umpire Mike Winters to watch Desmond's bat! Wendlestedt didn't ask for help, instead ringing Desmond up himself and putting the Nats one out from elimination.
Here's Wendlestedt's strike zone vs. LHH....
I honestly didn't think the zone was all that bad last night, although that might have a lot to do with how poor the zones were throughout the series. He only missed two pitches that were in the strike zone (both calls went against the Giants). The Giants got more calls off the plate, specifically against RHH. The one really bad strike he called is the red square on the left-hand side of the second graph. This was on a 2-1 pitch to Werth in the fourth inning well off the inside corner.
The entire offense outside of Harper and Rendon
Anthony Rendon went 7 for 19 (even if he was just Tony One Bag) with a walk in this series. Bryce Harper was 5 for 17 with 2 walks, a double, and 3 HR in the series. The rest of the offense was abysmal, going 14 for 137. As much as Matt Williams is going to be thrown under the bus for his handling of the bullpen, it's nearly impossible to win when the offense bats .164/.222/.258 and combines to score just nine runs in four games.
Denard Span was rolling everything over to the right side again. Wilson Ramos looked incapable of adjusting as the Giants attacked him away over and over again. Adam LaRoche hit weak fly ball after weak fly ball. The offense outside of Harper and Rendon was so bad that you could make an argument that the Nats third best hitter in this series was pinch hitter Nate Schierholtz, who went 1 for 2 with 2 walks.
Thanks for reading
With the Nats' season at an end, I'd like to thank those of you who have made it this far for reading, both today and throughout the year. This was a difficult game to relive, but the Nats have a strong enough core so that they'll have an excellent shot at making it back to this point (and hopefully beyond!) next year.
Particularly since I'm an out of town fan, I want to say how much I enjoy being able to come here to Federal Baseball and discuss games with fellow Nats fans. When I walk around town wearing my Nats gear, I often get ugly looks from the self-congratulatory "BFIB" here in St. Louis. Let's just say that outside of Federal Baseball, very few of my friends even know what I'm talking about if I try and discuss anything about the Nats (or any other team that isn't the Cardinals for that matter). Since I don't want to risk forgetting anyone, I won't shout out a bunch of names, but I want to thank all of you for making FBB a great community (and support group). If you're a lurker who comes here to read that doesn't post often, drop in... say hi... enjoy the camaraderie.
For those who follow the offseason closely (or need the occasional fix), I intend to write once or twice a week during the offseason. I'm sure I'll throw some focus towards the roster for 2015 (and beyond), free agents or trades the Nats could target, and the occasional strategic discussion or player profile.