For the fourth time in eight days, the Nats held a lead in the sixth inning or later and found a way to lose. The two most recent games that they've done so have been responsible for two game swings in the standings, as they were against the team that they had a reasonable chance of catching. Of course, with this team, it hasn't been about the fact that they have lost games, but how they continue to find ways to lose them.
The seventh inning of Tuesday night's game began with a familiar script. Matt Williams used an ineffective Blake Treinen to begin the seventh inning with a six run lead. He then turned to lefty Felipe Rivero to face pinch hitter Juan Uribe with two on and two out. Rivero proceeded to throw just two strikes to the next two batters, walking Uribe and lefty Curtis Granderson to trim the lead to 7-3.
This is where Williams strayed from the script and finally did what many of us have been saying he should have been doing for months: He turned to Drew Storen, one of his top two relievers, in the biggest spot of the game. Storen fell behind Yoenis Cespedes 1-0 before throwing him a sinker over the heart of the plate that was roped into the corner for a three run double. Still, even after the double, the Nats clung to a one run lead. Even an accidental, momentary show of competence could have escaped the inning and maybe we're talking about how the Nats almost blew it instead of how they colossally collapsed.
No such luck..... Here's what we got instead:
That's a seven pitch walk to Daniel Murphy. The fact that it got to seven pitches is a bit of an umpire-aided miracle, as the first pitch that Storen threw that was actually in the strike zone was the sixth pitch of the at bat. The first and third pitches (called strikes) were borderline. Nonetheless, Storen did walk Murphy.
The first pitch to Wright got away, advancing both runners ninety feet. Here we have a five pitch walk (with the lone strike being a 3-0 pitch down the middle) that's made even more frustrating by the fact that this is the guy Storen should be attacking! Wright had homered earlier in the game, but he hasn't been great since returning from the DL. More importantly, Storen has some pretty wide platoon splits (RHH are batting .138/.206/.234 against Storen.... including last night's game), and Wright was a right-handed hitter sandwiched between a pair of lefties.
I guess if you want to scream at somebody other than Storen, you could scream at the ump for missing a strike at the bottom of the zone on the corner on the 2-0 pitch? It's not really like Storen deserved to get a borderline pitch at this point, though, right? He'd thrown two out of his previous eleven pitches for strikes, and one of those was on a 3-0 get me over fastball. Combined with the two previous walks, the walk to Duda forced the tying run in.
He then fell behind Travis d'Arnaud 2-1 before allowing a sharp liner to Harper in right field. Mercifully, Storen's night ended. He was charged with just one of the six runs the Nats allowed in the inning, but he was absolutely brutal. It's frustrating to see a reliever get lit up, as we've seen on a fairly regular basis this season. It's unforgivable for relievers to come in with a six run lead and be terrified of attacking the strike zone.
Jonathan Papelbon was fine. Even good closers give up the occasional home run.
The faults of the bullpen were 100% not on Matt Williams last night. He treated it like a big game, actually going to his "B+" bullpen to begin the seventh despite having a huge lead and his "A" bullpen to try (and fail) to get the final out of the seventh and throw the eighth and ninth innings. Matt Williams is not the guy who went out there and pitifully cowered away from the strike zone.
Matty's big mistake
Just because the bullpen blowing up wasn't his fault doesn't absolve Matty from any blame in this one. Asking Anthony Rendon to bunt with Jayson Werth on first in the ninth inning was absolutely horrendous. The odd thing is that it actually probably played out better than Williams could have hoped for it to play out if the bunt had been successful. Here's a snippet from Williams' postgame comments about the bunt:
It was bunted too hard. We got a chance to get Jayson on second base with arguably out best two hitters coming to the plate and then it didn't work. We ended up in the same position anyway with Yuni up there with a guy in scoring position, but Familia throws a lot a grounders and he got one to end the game.
No, Matty... You ended up in a slightly better position than you would have had the bunt been successful. You upgraded the runner at second from Werth to Rendon. It was a near certainty that Bryce Harper wasn't going to be allowed to hit with one out and a runner on in that situation anyway. As it happened, the failure to "successfully" give away an out for ninety feet just changed Harper's plate appearance from an intentional walk to a pitch around. Maybe a couple of pitches were close to the zone, but Familia didn't throw him a single strike in the at bat:
I'm not sure which part of this decision by Williams was worse.
- He was assuring that his best hitter and MVP candidate was going to have the bat taken out of his hands
- He was giving up an out from arguably his second best hitter in order to do this
- He left the bunt on, even with a 3-1 count... to a batter that finished Top 5 in the MVP voting last year... in front of the best hitter in baseball, who Familia surely doesn't want to put another guy on in front of.
When Werth led off the inning with a single, it seemed inevitable that Williams was going to have Rendon bunt. It was the easiest way to ensure that the Nats two best hitters, the guys who the Nats are staking as the foundation of their franchise for the next several years, wouldn't be allowed to have an impact on this game in the ninth inning. After two years of watching Williams run this team, I don't know how many of us could have expected anything different.
I felt bad for Matty watching his press conference. He looked like a man who just has no answers at this point. I suppose watching a couple of guys who have been pretty good relievers and a third who has shown flashes of greatness walk out to the mound and piss themselves in the biggest game of the year will do that to you. At the same time, the fact that he has no answers is yet another indictment on his tenure as manager of the Washington Nationals.
I apologize to d_c_guy for today's musical selection, but it seems appropriate.....