After the Washington Nationals had let a 6-1 lead slip away, Bryce Harper stepped to the plate in the ninth inning. The 22-year-old superstar got a 1-0 Cody Martin slider at the knees and did this.....
It was an epic game-winning blast from a red hot player who made a few terrific catches today as well. It was Harper's sixth home run in his past three games. It was a moment of pure joy for the Nats, and hey... I'm a fan of pure joy. Still, it was a moment that probably never should have presented itself in the first place. You'll get to hear a lot about how epic Harper's walkoff homer on Saturday was elsewhere. I'm going to talk about what led up to it.
Questionable call #1: Sticking with Fister too long
The Nats were cruising along with a 6-1 lead in Saturday's game. Doug Fister was showing some signs of fatigue in the seventh inning. Manager Matt Williams mainly got away with leaving him in too long, but it did cost the Nats two runs. Fister was leaving a lot of pitches up in the zone, and the Braves were all over him in the inning. The first two hitters, Alberto Callaspo and Jace Peterson, both ripped liners to right field. Bryce Harper was well positioned on Callaspo's liner and caught it. He made a terrific diving catch on Peterson's. At this point, the bullpen should probably have been up.
Instead, Williams waited until Christian Bethancourt and Cameron Maybin smoked a couple of hits before finally getting Matt Thornton up in the bullpen. He sent Steve McCatty out to the mound, who conferred with Fister for about as long as Braves' starter/human rain delay Julio Teheran takes between pitches to give Thornton time to get ready. It wasn't quite long enough. Fister left a 1-0 changeup down the heart of the plate and pinch hitter Pedro Ciriaco blasted it over Jayson Werth's head for a two run double. Now Thornton was ready to come in and face leadoff man Nick Markakis.
Questionable call #2: The nth inning guy returns?
Thornton came in to replace Fister and face the left-handed hitting Nick Markakis. He was a bit fortunate, as Harper made a terrific over the shoulder catch just shy of the track in right field. Thornton threw four pitches to Markakis.... four pitches. The Nats sent their numbers three, four, five, and six hitters to the plate in the bottom of the seventh, so Thornton's spot didn't come up in the order.
I remember previewing this series just a couple of days ago. The Braves don't just have a lot of left-handed hitters. Their best hitters are predominantly left-handed. The Braves had Andrelton Simmons (R), Freddie Freeman (L), Kelly Johnson (L), Alberto Callaspo (S), and Jace Peterson (L) due up in the eighth inning. Williams had his best lefty in the pen already in the game and eligible to return to the mound for the eighth inning after having thrown just four pitches. Why overthink it? Maybe you give a little away against Simmons to start the inning, but he's the least likely to hurt you of the Braves' first three hitters.
Instead, Williams pulled Thornton and went to Aaron Barrett. Barrett had been performing very well against left-handed hitters so far this season. I'm hesitant to call it a complete small sample size mirage (he only faced 62 LHH all season in 2014 anyway), but that sure wasn't the case in his rookie year. In 2014, lefties hit .264/.377/.373 against Barrett... right-handers hit .190/.277/.253. He's capable of getting lefties out, but he certainly shouldn't be trusted to do so as much as Matt Thornton.
Anyway, I didn't see the fact that Thornton was pulled brought up too much in postgame discussions or on social media. It seems odd to me, because I think that this was the biggest mistake that Williams made in the game. I can see leaving Fister in even if he was showing some signs of fatigue. The Nats had a pretty comfortable five run lead. Fister's pitch count wasn't all that high and he was just one pitch away from getting out of the seventh inning jam. I can see going to Roark over Solis when he replaced Barrett. I can't see any fathomable reason why he would pull his best lefty from the game after four pitches with a three run lead and two powerful left-handed hitters due up second and third for the Braves in the eighth. Was he trying to keep Thornton's pitch count down in case he needs to use him Sunday?
Questionable call #3: Going to Tanner Roark over Sammy Solis to face Jace Peterson with the bases loaded and one out
I'm actually good with this call, though going to Roark when he could have gained the platoon advantage with Solis could raise a few questions. The fact of the matter is that Roark was the best reliever remaining in the bullpen (regardless of which hand he throws with) outside of Drew Storen. Solis is still new to relieving and he's thrown a total of two appearances in the majors thus far. I'm not doubting his ability or saying that he couldn't handle it, but going to the veteran right-hander over Solis in that high leverage a spot seems like the safer call. In the end, Roark retired (kind of.... he got away with tagging him with the glove when the ball was in his throwing hand) Peterson and then gave up a two-run double to a right-handed hitter to tie the game anyway.
Let's not dwell on this too much. The Nats still ended up winning thanks to the most #overhated player in the league's walkoff blast. They climbed above .500 for the first time this season. It was a fun game. There was a ton of drama at the end. It probably should have been avoided, but sometimes players (and managers) just have bad days.
You know what would be even more fun? If the Nats decided to shut me up and sweep the Braves today. Go Nats!