The Washington Nationals fell to the Chicago Cubs 3-2 on Tuesday night. The headlines will tell us about how the clubs' two young stars in last night's game that MLB wants to promote each hit a solo home run. Bryce Harper hit a game-tying homer in the sixth inning for the Nats. Kris Bryant responded with a towering blast into the left center field stands in the bottom of the seventh. One of the Cubs other young stars hit what ended up being a walkoff double in the bottom of the ninth for Chicago.
There's no shame in losing to the Cubs... or to any other big league club, for that matter. No team has ever gone 162-0... Heck. No team has ever lost fewer than 36 games (1906 Cubs) in a full season. The Nats have lost nineteen games this season, and they're going to lose quite a few more. That doesn't make losing a game that might have turned out differently if not for some mental mistakes any easier to swallow.
Let's take a look at the three significant mental mistakes that the Nats made in Tuesday's game. We'll start with what was probably the least egregious of the three because that's the one that helped set up the winning run for the Cubs.
Ian Desmond's error in the ninth inning
Let's set the situation up. Chris Coghlan was on first base with one out in the ninth inning of a 2-2 game. Jonathan Herrera pinch hit for Cubs' closer Hector Rondon. Herrera isn't exactly a burner, but he has decent speed. He's 3 for 3 in stolen base attempts this season, at least. Anyway, Herrera hits a slow chopper to second base. It was hit softly enough so that even if (2012-13) Wilson Ramos was running, it would have taken a near perfect turn of the double play to get him at first. With an average/slightly above average runner like Herrera running down the line, there was absolutely no chance.
Desmond took the throw from Espinosa and made an ill-advised throw to try and get Herrera while Chris Coghlan was bearing down on him. It ended up in the Cubs' dugout and Herrera moved down to second base. Addison Russell followed with a deep fly ball to right center field. With the winning run on second base, the outfield was in a bit more shallow than usual for Russell's at bat. Had the winning run been on first base, the Nats would almost certainly have been playing a no doubles defense (deep) and Span probably gets to that ball.
Desmond's error was one of overaggression. He tried to make a play, even though it was a play that he had no shot at making.... Watching the replay, by the time the camera starts following the throw towards first base, Herrera is already out of the picture and past the bag. It cost the Nats 90 feet in a tie game. More importantly, it changed how they would align their defense.
Yunel Escobar's first TOOTBLAN
Bryce Harper was at the plate in the first inning with Escobar on first base and two outs. Escobar got caught leaning too far after a 1-1 pitch. Miguel Montero threw behind him for the third out of the inning.
Let's start by ignoring the fact that it's Escobar running and pay more attention to who is at the plate. Bryce Harper has been the best hitter on the planet for the past month. He currently leads the major leagues in OBP (.471) and Slugging (.727). He has more extra base hits (27) than singles (24)! You want runners on base when Harper is batting. Risking losing a baserunner with Harper at the plate for the hope of 90 extra feet (which even in the first inning probably only adds to the temptation to pitch around him) simply isn't worth it... period. I don't care if it's Billy Hamilton on first base!
Now let's look at Escobar. He did steal his first base of the year later in the game, running on a 3-2 pitch curveball that was about six inches off the inside corner that the umpire somehow called a strike. That one steal he got in the ninth inning of Tuesday's game matches his total from all of last season. Escobar doesn't steal bases very often (31 career) in part because he's just not very good at it (24 career caught stealing, a 56.3% success rate). He should almost never be wandering off the bag regardless of the situation. He did with the Nats best hitter at the plate and got burned.
Yunel Escobar's second TOOTBLAN
Federal Baseball user d_c_guy emphasized in the game thread that calling this a TOOTBLAN wasn't being harsh enough. There needed to be a modifier before "Nincompoop" which... well... we avoid using profanity at FBB, so I won't say it. In the top of the ninth inning of a tie game, Escobar was standing on second base representing the go-ahead run. Wilson Ramos was at the plate with a 3-2 count. We never got to see that 3-2 pitch, since Escobar broke for third and got picked off by Hector Rondon.
As I pointed out above, Escobar isn't a particularly strong base stealer. I won't bother to rehash those numbers because they're largely irrelevant here anyway. There was almost nothing to be gained by Escobar if Ramos drew a walk even if he did successfully steal third base. There was no runner on first base, so it wasn't a situation where the runner should be starting on a 3-2 count. With two outs, Escobar would have been going with the crack of the bat and most likely scores on any hit out of the infield. Instead, a poor base stealer got caught off the bag at second and made the final out at third base when a single would have scored him and given the Nats the lead in the ninth inning anyway.
Three mental errors cost the Nats two outs, ninety feet in a high leverage spot, and changed their defensive positioning on what ended up being the final play of the game. I'm not a "little things" guy, but the poor fundamental play last night really cost them. Losing games happens, but it's really frustrating to see the boys beat themselves.