On Thursday night, the Washington Nationals lost 5-3 to the Tampa Bay Rays. They dropped three out of four to Tampa Bay and fell to 6-14 in their past twenty games. The Nats scored twenty runs in the four game set.... Sixteen of them came in one game.
Unfortunately, the loss wasn't the only news from Thursday's game. Bryce Harper left with an injury after he couldn't get his footing on the wet grass in the outfield making a throw in the sixth. The Nationals are reporting this as a mild hamstring strain and listing him as day to day. Given the track record of the Nats training staff, we know that this means that Harper does, indeed, have a hamstring in his left leg. We think that he's still alive and well, and there's about an 80% chance that they won't have to amputate.
Now that there's concern that the Nats may be without their best player for anywhere from a few days to the rest of his career, Matt Williams decided that it was time to throw down the gauntlet....
"It's time to step up," he said. "It's time. It's time to step up. Everybody. We look forward to doing that tomorrow."
Before we discuss one of the main people who needs to step it up, let's examine the timing of this statement. It's June 19. The Nats have played 41.3% of their regular season games at this point in the season. It's a few weeks past the point where the "It's early" cliche should still be used. The Nats loss on Thursday dropped them to 34-33, which is still a game over .500.
- That's largely due to a 21-6 stretch from April 28 to May 27.
- That insanely hot stretch has been surrounded by a 7-13 start and....
- A 6-14 run in their past twenty games.
Over these past twenty games, the Nats have combined to score 73 runs (3.65/game). Of course, 16 of those runs came in Tuesday's blowout win. They still count, but the three runs that they scored on Thursday were exactly what they'd averaged in their past twenty games outside of that one crazy outlier performance.
I'm showing you all of this to say that it has been time for the club to step it up for quite some time now. Ian Desmond, who has been the biggest underachiever on the team, said as much a few weeks ago....
Ian Desmond: "Not to say that these games are do or die but we’ve got to start playing a little better"— James Wagner (@JamesWagnerWP) June 8, 2015
This begs the question: Why is Williams making this comment to the media now? The Nats certainly haven't thrived as much as they were expected to so far this season, but Williams' strength is supposed to be his ability as a motivator.... at least that's what we're led to believe. Did he really have to wait for his star right fielder to leave before making a comment like this to try and light a fire under his players? Was it wise to even say something like that to the media (instead of in a closed door meeting) at all?
That leads us to the larger point. When Williams says that it's time for everybody to step up, he's near the top of the list. Williams hasn't really shown any improvement with his handling of the bullpen. Maybe he's trying something new. Over the past few weeks, rather than going to a bullpen that he's struggled to handle, he's trying to milk an extra inning from his starter. We've seen this occur with Max Scherzer (twice), Gio Gonzalez, and Tanner Roark (twice) in the past few weeks. It hasn't been particularly effective, as those starters have all allowed runs in their final inning when they looked like they were running on fumes. Still, Williams went back to the well in Thursday's loss.
Doug Fister was in his first start back from the disabled list and had given the Nats five strong innings. He had to be on a lower pitch count than usual in his first start back, though, and was at 74 pitches when the inning began. Maybe he wasn't quite at his limit to begin the inning, but he was pushing it. With the Rays sending the heart of the lineup to the plate (2-3-4), it would have made a world of sense to have someone up behind him in the bullpen between innings so that Fister could be removed at the first sign of trouble.
Unfortunately, Williams didn't get Blake Treinen up until after Joey Butler had poked a hanging curveball into the Nats bullpen for a leadoff homer. Fister allowed three more hard hit balls (one of which Ian Desmond should have fielded for a double play) and coughed up the 3-1 lead before Treinen was ready. Under ordinary circumstances, it might be forgivable not to have someone up behind Fister at this point in the game, but in his first start back from the disabled list, Williams has to be aware that things can go south quickly and be prepared. He wasn't.... again.
In his second season at the helm, Williams' handling of the pitching staff has arguably been worse than it was last year. His insistence on relying on roles and the "nth" inning guy helped fuel the poor start. His insistence on sticking with his starters too long and not having a backup plan in place has helped fuel the club's current poor stretch. His decision to allow Stephen Strasburg to remain in the game for three innings in his May 5 start against the Marlins when he was complaining about shoulder pain in the first inning was borderline criminal in its negligence.
Williams' handling of the defensive alignment finally had something that reads on traditional scoresheets bite him in Thursday's contest. Yunel Escobar bounced a throw on a routine grounder that Danny Espinosa couldn't handle. It's bitten the Nats on a handful of plays in the past week that don't show up on the traditional scoresheet. Escobar's lack of range at third base has prevented him from even getting close to a few singles that an average third baseman might have gotten to. If Escobar, Espinosa, and Rendon are all going to be in the lineup, it's confusing that Williams thinks it makes sense to play all three of them out of position rather than one.
While I hate the timing of it and I think that Williams is among the primary guys that needs to step up his game, let's not totally ignore Williams' point. The Nats do need to step up.... Everybody!
The Nats have had a lot of injury problems, which is both an excuse and a reason for their struggles to this point in the season. Then again, the team that just took three out of four from the Nats is without four of their top five starting pitchers right now. Their starting catcher has played one game this season. Their starting first baseman has played thirty games. Their starting center fielder has played eighteen games. They traded away arguably two of their three best hitters (Ben Zobrist and Wil Myers) in the offseason. They've shown a "next man up" mentality and overcome those injuries to lead the AL East with a 38-30 record. It can be done.
Outside of that 21-6 stretch that the Nats had from April 28 to May 27, they have a .325 winning percentage. That's forty points lower than their winning percentage in 2008 and 2009 when they finished with the worst record in baseball. Whether they've been dealing with injuries or not, their current level of play has been unacceptable. It starts at the top. Lead by example Matty.