With their offense stalled in a two-week long slump, the Nationals walked a tightrope on Thursday night that caused several close plays and one big mistake on the basepaths to loom large in their 2-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs.
The game itself ended when Clint Robinson was picked off by catcher David Ross at first base. Robinson had followed a Michael Taylor single with a walk against Cubs closer Hector Rondon. And with Anthony Rendon at the plate eyeing a chance to be the hero, Robinson misjudged his lead off the bag and it cost him.
Ross fired a bullet to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who easily tagged Robinson for the final out. The Nationals became the first team to lose on a catcher-to-first pickoff since... the Nationals on Aug. 12, 2009, when Brian McCann of the Atlanta Braves caught Nyjer Morgan sleeping on base.
Robinson accepted blame for the loss in a brief interview afterwards.
"I just got too far, got picked off. Ballgame. Pretty much plain and simple," he said. "It's frustrating. But that's on me. That can't happen. Took the bat out of Anthony's hands, one of our better hitters, and it's just on me. That can't happen. I really can't explain it. I really wasn't trying to go anywhere, I just couldn't get back fast enough."
It was an unusual ending to a game that had already featured two innings end on Nats players getting caught stealing. The second of those plays ended the fourth inning, as Danny Espinosa was thrown out at second.
Espinosa slid in to the bag and thought he avoided the tag from Starlin Castro. The Nationals challenged the play, but it was upheld. That lost the Nats their one manager's challenge and it came back to bite them just two innings later.
Bryce Harper was also called out on a bang-bang play, his at first base on an RBI groundout. Harper came up with the bases loaded and one out against starter Jake Arrieta in the bottom of the sixth. He hit a slow grounder to Castro and was called out at first. Replays appeared to show he was safe, but the Nats did not have their challenge. The cut-off for umpires to call their own review is in the seventh inning.
"Bottom of the sixth, nothing we can do," Harper said. "Close call. I didn't get that one, but it would have been nice, definitely. Bases loaded with one out and [Ryan Zimmerman] coming up. I think that would have changed the momentum of the game, definitely. That's pretty rough."
Williams knows exactly how close the Nationals were to winning this one, but hopes their response on Friday doesn't change despite the result.
"We can look back a week and a half and it seems like we were getting a hit every time there was a guy in scoring position. The key to this whole thing is not to be one way or the other," he said.
"If Anthony would’ve hit a three-run homer there and we ended up winning the game, we’d forget about quickly because we have another one tomorrow. We must do the same in this instance and be ready to play tomorrow."
Soon after the Nationals lost to the Cubs, the New York Mets secured a 6-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks. That pushed the Nats out of first place in the NL East for the first time since May 20.