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Washington Nationals let another winnable game slip away

For the seventh time in the past week, the Washington Nationals found themselves in a very winnable game. For the fourth time in the past week, they let that game slip through their fingers.

For the fourth time in the past week, the Nats let a winnable game slip through their fingers. They remain 6.5 games back of the Mets.
For the fourth time in the past week, the Nats let a winnable game slip through their fingers. They remain 6.5 games back of the Mets.
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

An awful lot of things went wrong in the Washington Nationals 8-5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday night. Joe Ross walked six batters in 2.2 innings after walking just eleven batters in his first eleven starts. The Nats stranded ten baserunners while plating five runs (actually, not that bad). The Nats attempted to gun down the lead runner when the Cardinals tried to give them a free out twice. Yunel Escobar couldn't make the catch on either play. One was a terrible throw by Wilson Ramos that bounced to him. The other was a throw from Drew Storen which was right over the bag and hit Escobar's glove.

We talk about the Cardinals and their devil magic all the time. They do seem to get such an inordinate amount of bloopy BABIP singles that it's natural to go there. Of St. Louis' eight hits on Tuesday, just one (a broken bat single by Stephen Piscotty on an 0-2 pitch that traveled about eight feet) really fit that mold. Even that was erased when Blake Treinen induced a double play by Jhonny Peralta a batter later.

The other thing that the Cardinals are usually exceptional at is making opposing teams pay for their mistakes. However, they weren't even great at that on Tuesday night. St. Louis left a lot of runners on the basepaths themselves. They scored three runs, but left the bases loaded when Joe Ross walked half the ballpark in the third inning. They stranded Brandon Moss at third base in the sixth inning the first time that the Nationals kicked the ball around the infield, failing to score despite having runners on the corners and nobody out. After scoring the first run on the Storen error, the Cardinals ended up converting just one more run out of a bases loaded, nobody out situation in the eighth inning. St. Louis scored their first five runs because Ross couldn't find the zone and the Nats didn't execute properly on defense... but they probably should have scored more.

All of the above mistakes (each and every one of them!) are not on Matt Williams. Could he have gotten Fister (or a short reliever who could have warmed up faster) up sooner? Maybe... I thought he was probably only a batter too late in pulling him. From my view behind the batter's eye, Ross seemed to be missing close (possibly even getting squeezed) early in the third inning, but he clearly seemed to lose his release point during the Jason Heyward at bat (fifth batter of the inning). Technically, he got a call on the 1-0 pitch in the Heyward at bat (the first pitch was actually closer, but also out of the zone) and didn't throw a pitch that was in the strike zone to any of his final three hitters.......

That's fourteen pitches, maybe three of which were even close to the strike zone. He got the called strike on the 1-0 pitch against Heyward and Kolten Wong fouled off the first pitch he saw at the shins. Ross didn't have it on Tuesday night. I can't say exactly why. Was his high workload this season (he entered the game with 20 more innings thrown this season than he's ever thrown in a season before) finally catching up to him? Did he get rattled by the Peralta liner that deflected off of him in the first inning? It's possible that everything's fine and he just had an (really) off night. Anyway, it might have been nice to see Williams pull him a batter earlier, but it's hard to foresee having to pull your starter in the third after he'd pitched two hitless innings to start the game. Relievers need time to get ready.

Should Yunel Escobar still be playing at third base? The Nats do have an outstanding defensive third baseman who did this playing second base Tuesday night, but Escobar continues to be among the worst defensive third basemen in baseball. His range factor/game (1.75) ranks last among regular starters at third. His defensive runs saved (-9) is tied for fifth worst among major league third basemen. It's not only Baseball Reference (via Baseball Info Solutions) that doesn't like Escobar's glove much at third base. Fangraphs has him sixteenth among twenty qualified third basemen in UZR/150 (-9.1) and seventeenth in defensive WAR component (-4.3).

Both Ramos' and Storen's decisions to throw to third seemed ill-advised, but Escobar almost certainly should have caught Storen's throw (freeze it at 45 seconds if you think the throw was off-line). I'm not sure it would have beaten Pham to the bag, but it was close. Given how Escobar has hit this season, it's difficult to justify pulling him from the starting lineup, but subbing him out defensively when you have the lead in the eighth inning seems reasonable, particularly with the expanded rosters. Still, it is what it is, and leaving Escobar in at third base certainly isn't horrifying, even if it may have cost the Nats a run or two on Tuesday.

This is horrifying:

We can debate why the Nats only called up one extra pitcher as the rosters expanded to forty men on Tuesday all we want... this is something that became a much bigger factor Tuesday when Joe Ross couldn't get out of the third inning. We can argue about how most big league managers would have acted in a similar fashion (heck... Mike Matheny didn't use his closer [who threw 18 pitches Monday] in the ninth). We can try and neglect the fact that Casey Janssen threw his second longest outing of the season (26 pitches) on Monday night... before he'd gotten to 20 pitches Tuesday after allowing a couple of 27-year-old rookies with a combined 105 big league plate appearances to reach. Still, the Nats lost in a walkoff situation without using their bullpen ace. It was yet another situation which called for urgency where urgency wasn't shown.

Contrary to what some of our readers at Federal Baseball think, I don't believe that Matt Williams is an imbecile. I get tired of hearing the "We'll have to be better tomorrow" nonsense just like the rest of you, but I always take that as Williams saying, "I made a move. It didn't work out. These things happen sometimes. I trust my process and it's going to start paying dividends eventually." Using his "We'll have to be better tomorrow" phrase may sound vanilla and annoy fans, but it keeps him from giving the media a soundbite that's difficult not to criticize.... something like the quote above.

Whether it's actually the case or not, the quote above implies that Williams doesn't seem to consider using his best reliever(s) to extend the game long enough to get to a save situation. He'll only use them if a save situation has created itself. The fact that we've seen this policy practiced confirms what the quote implies. We saw it in San Francisco last postseason. We saw it in New York last month. We saw it once again on Tuesday night.

Practicing that policy is sub-optimal, but it happens. In fact, it's fairly commonplace among big league managers who are playing on the road. Very few managers will go to their bullpen ace (Closer) on the road in a tie game. This flies in the face of the numbers a bit. A team's win expectancy when pitching in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth inning (or later) is 37.5%. A team's win expectancy when pitching with a one run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning (or later) is 81.9%. A team's win expectancy when pitching with a two run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning (or later) is 91.4%. With a three run lead, it's 98%.

Getting the team back in the dugout so that they can try to take the lead in the next inning actually has as large a swing as anything but a one run save. However, even if that one run save is blown, it doesn't necessarily mean the game is lost... the win expectancy plummets back towards (and a bit below) 50%. In a tie game, if that reliever allows a run to score, you've cost yourself any chance of winning the ballgame. Basically, you worry about who's going to save the game in the tenth or eleventh inning after getting to the tenth or eleventh inning and giving your team more chances to score runs and win the game. Going to an inferior and/or fatigued reliever instead of your bullpen ace lowers the chances of giving your team another opportunity to score runs.

Saying that he was holding Papelbon back for a save situation is a different thing entirely, though. As I said above, I don't feel that Matt Williams is a stupid man. I don't think he's a very good major league manager, but that doesn't make him stupid. Even smart men can say stupid things, though. Acknowledging that he wanted Papelbon to be around to close a game out simply implies that he thinks that the possibility of a situation that may never occur is more important than giving his team an opportunity to create that situation.

I've been accused of writing hit pieces on Matt Williams. Other Nats blogs have had their fair share of less than flattering things to say about Williams. The national media has been all over Williams for the past month. When a manager is on the hot seat, his moves aren't the only things that are under the microscope. People are looking for anything to criticize, including the things he says in his postgame press conferences. He can't make a statement like that without opening himself up to criticism... even if the Nats had their fair share of opportunities to put the game away earlier.