For the second night in a row, the Washington Nationals lost a one run game to their closest competitor in the N.L. East. For the second night in a row, the New York Mets scored that winning run in their final at bat. For the second night in a row, the Nats top two relievers watched all of that action unfold from the bullpen.
Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams is out of excuses.
Nats GM Mike Rizzo made his deadline move, snagging Jonathan Papelbon from the Phillies. In order to acquire Papelbon, Rizzo took quite a few risks. Assuring Papelbon that he would close risked upsetting his best relief pitcher, Drew Storen, who has been a rock in an otherwise shaky bullpen. Assuming the extra year of Papelbon's services for $11 million puts a considerable strain on the budget beyond this season. Finally, Rizzo risked team chemistry and fan relations by acquiring a player who has a reputation (deserved or not) for being a bit abrasive.
All player acquisitions come with a bit of risk, and there's no saying whether or not these risks will pay off in the long run. We can't make any type of assessment as to how successful trading for Papelbon was after four days. We can say that there was some logic behind taking those risks and acquiring Papelbon at the deadline.
Adding Papelbon to the back of the bullpen was a move made to shorten ballgames. The goal behind having Storen and Papelbon work in the eighth and ninth inning (sigh) roles is to create an endgame so dominant that the Nats goal becomes getting through seven innings with the lead to hand it off to a dominant one-two punch. Perhaps just as importantly, it was a move that was made to help mask what has been a perhaps Williams' biggest weakness in his first two years as manager of the Nats: His bullpen management.
With Storen and Papelbon as a dominant force to work the eighth and ninth innings, Williams doesn't really need to think ahead that much as long as they're both available. He has some other solid pieces in the bullpen, all of whom can be used to create more favorable matchups earlier in games. He shouldn't have to try to overextend his starters, as he no longer needs to worry as much about trying to create the best matchups in the eighth and ninth innings when the Nats have the lead... He can just plug and play his two relief aces once the eighth inning starts.
Matt Williams is out of excuses.
Overextending the starters is something that has been an issue for Williams this season. Very few starters are as effective after they've already turned a lineup over a couple of times. Hitters have a better idea of the kind of stuff that the pitcher has that day. They have a better idea of how that pitcher is attacking them on the mound that day. Fatigue starts setting in as the pitch count rises. Let's have a look at the Nats splits by times through the order.
Many of us will remember that Williams has had some stretches where he almost always seemed to be pushing his starter for that one extra inning. He'd run Gio out there for the seventh at 95 pitches. He'd let Fister stay in for the sixth when he was clearly elevating his fastball. Heck... He even sent Scherzer back out for the eighth at 101 pitches earlier this season and left him in to allow a three run bomb to Giancarlo Stanton.
When he was struggling to find relievers who could consistently give him strong shutdown innings in the latter innings of games, it was a little more forgivable. It was still a poor decision to leave those guys in rather than let the bullpen handle matters, but his other options weren't that great either. He could either let a tired Scherzer who had faced the lineup three times already stay in or he could hand the ball over to Blake Treinen... or Matt Thornton (or Grace)... or Aaron Barrett. That's not the case anymore....
Matt Williams is out of excuses.
Joe Ross has been tremendous this season. Nonetheless, he's a rookie who had reached the seventh inning just six times in his nineteen starts between the minors and the majors this season. He was turning over the lineup for the third time of the evening and had really only struggled against one batter all night... Lucas Duda. He'd walked Duda in the second inning and allowed a towering home run to him in the fourth inning. Duda was slated to lead off the bottom of the seventh inning.
Duda having a strong night against Ross should come as no surprise. For all of the success that Ross has had this season, he has had a fairly significant platoon split. For a sinker/slider pitcher whose changeup seems to need some refinement, it's not a big shock that lefties have hit him quite a bit better. How much better?
Ross' pitch count didn't necessarily scream "Get him out of there!" He'd needed just 84 pitches through the first six innings. He shouldn't have been hitting the wall in terms of fatigue. He probably had an inning left in his arm under normal circumstances, but were these normal circumstances?
He's a rookie who generally hasn't worked deep into games this year. He's facing the team that's hot on your heels in the standings with a one run lead. The bullpen is fresh outside of Felipe Rivero and Tanner Roark, and you're one inning away from getting it to that overpowering endgame tandem that Mike Rizzo just created for you. Oh... and the leadoff man that inning has seen him well, hit one to LaGuardia in his last at bat, and has a pretty big platoon edge over him. Just for the heck of it, let's toss this nugget in. In a one run game when the absolute most Matt Williams could have asked out of Ross was that he finish one more inning, Joe Ross batted in the top half of the seventh inning.
Matt Williams is out of excuses.
Ross took the ball for the bottom of the seventh and allowed a leadoff homer to left on his first pitch to Duda that tied the game. He retired Wilmer Flores before Kelly Johnson blasted a double over Jayson Werth's head and ended his night. Matt Williams got three more hitters out of him after letting him bat in a one run game in the seventh inning*. The matchup game could have and should have been played here.
*Ross did get an infield single in that at bat
After going to Casey Janssen to retire Travis d'Arnaud. He then had Janssen intentionally walk Juan Uribe (seriously?) to get to Ruben Tejada. Uribe's a decent, but unspectacular hitter with a career .257/.303/.421 line. I decided to look it up, because I can't imagine it's happened too often, and was surprised to see that Uribe has been intentionally walked 24 times in his career now. It was about 23 more than I expected.. OK... Maybe if he was hitting in front of a pitcher (13 in the 8th spot). This wasn't the last time Williams would give the Mets a free baserunner.
Although I do believe that Storen should get the call in the eighth inning of a tie game under normal circumstances, it was a defensible choice to go to Thornton to start the inning last night. Curtis Granderson bats 46 points lower against lefties in his career, and is batting just .143 against them in 2015. Daniel Murphy bats 30 points lower against lefties in his career and is batting just .176 against them in 2015. Storen does have a pretty big split, as lefties have been fine against him (.288/.329/.304) and right-handers just don't have a chance (.085/.169/.153). Thornton has been terrific against lefties this year (.196/.212/.255) and has handled right-handers just fine as well (.205/.300/.295). Getting the platoon advantage against Granderson and Murphy made a world of sense.
Unfortunately, Granderson defied the odds. He got ahead in the count and ripped a 2-1 fastball towards the corner for a double to lead off the inning. Thornton managed to keep him at second by getting Murphy to ground back to the pitcher, which led us to the oddest decision of the night.... Matt Williams intentionally walked Yoenis Cespedes to get to the Mets' hottest hitter, who had already hit two home runs on the night, Lucas Duda.
We heard all around social media that Cespedes has looked lost against left-handers this season, but I'll rehash those numbers anyway. He's batting .188/.244/.329 against lefties as opposed to .318/.343/.546 against righties. His career splits aren't as drastic (.249/.317/.452 vs. LHP, .276/.317/.479 vs. RHP), but he's certainly not a guy who has ever mashed left-handed pitching. As we showed above, Thornton isn't exactly a guy who struggles against right-handed hitters either. In a tie game where the Nats still had the ninth to try and tie it up if Cespedes got a hit, handing the Mets a free baserunner for a situation where the Nats didn't really gain an edge didn't make any sense.
Of course, that decision was exacerbated by the fact that Duda has actually hit lefties better than righties this season. In the past, Duda hasn't shown much competence against left-handers. Over the course of his career (including this season), Duda has a .230/.303/.362 line with a 32% strikeout rate and a 90 wRC+ against lefties. He was bad enough against lefties earlier in his career so that he spent most of his first few big league seasons as a platoon player. He seems to have figured it out a bit in 2015, though, and is batting .305/.359/.558 against lefties this season. That's good for a 159 wRC+, which is 33 points higher than his wRC+ against righties.
In no sane world should Matt Williams have intentionally walked Cespedes, who has never hit lefties particularly well, to get to Duda. That said, even if Thornton retires Cespedes, you're still looking at facing Duda with two outs.... assuming that he doesn't walk the Mets hottest hitter and go get Storen (or Barrett, who he eventually went to) to go after Wilmer Flores. With first base open and (presumably) two outs, making that call becomes easier, even if it still isn't smart to give the Mets a free baserunner in a tie game at that point.
Duda, of course, ripped a line drive over Jayson Werth's head for a game-winning double. Matt Williams stoically looked on from the dugout as the game slipped away. He's out of excuses. It's unforgivable to go into a series this big and lose two one run games where the Mets scored the winning run in their final at bat without your top two relievers getting on the field at some point!
It's time for a brief musical interlude brought to you by the Department of Redundancy Department.....
The other elephant in the room
Many of us were thrilled when Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman rejoined the lineup this past Tuesday (along with Anthony Rendon over the weekend). I'm certainly not implying that we shouldn't be. To be honest, none of them have been performing all that poorly. Zimmerman had the big homer to provide the Nats with their only run on Thursday, as well as a handful of other extra base hits this week. Werth hasn't had a lot of results, but he's turning in some vintage Werth at bats with long pitch counts. The results will come. Still.......
Matt Williams says he will continue to work Danny Espinosa in the lineup. He will take fly balls in left pregame today. #Nats— Chris Johnson (@masnCJ) July 25, 2015
Throughout the first four months of this season, Danny Espinosa has arguably been the Nats second best position player. He ranks second on the team with 2.1 rWAR and 2.0 fWAR. He ranks fourth on the team (third on the active roster... Span is ahead of him) with 3.2 Offensive Runs Above Average. All three of the players who have recently returned have negative figures for the year, as do Ian Desmond (-11.5) and one guy who Espinosa can't occasionally replace (Wilson Ramos brings up the rear at -12.9... there was a reason I brought up a catcher on deadline day). In fact, the only starters in the current lineup who have positive Offensive RAA are Bryce Harper (49.9) and Yunel Escobar (4.3).
I'll save you all the time to look up when Espinosa's last at bat was. It was on Sunday, July 26... one week ago today. He pinch ran for Clint Robinson on Friday, but that's the only appearance that the player who has been the Nats second best position player this season has made in the past week. The Nats have scored four runs in thirty innings since Thursday. Their second best position player, who is healthy, hasn't seen an at bat in that time. Once more with feeling....
Matt Williams is out of excuses!