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A demoralizing meltdown for Nats

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A demoralizing meltdown for Nats

PITTSBURGH -- Henry Rodriguez's "stuff" -- his triple-digit fastball and knee-buckling slider -- is as good as any repertoire in baseball.

"Stuff," though doesn't always translate into success. Especially when it comes to protecting a one-run lead in the ninth inning. As much as everyone would like to believe pitching is pitching, no matter the situation, decades of evidence have suggested there are some relievers who simply can't handle the pressure of closing a big-league game.

Whether Rodriguez falls into that category remains to be seen. He's been handed the ball in a save situation in the ninth inning only 10 times in his career, successfully preserving the win on eight occasions. That's not enough of a sample size to draw any conclusive resolutions.

This much we do know: Rodriguez is an all-or-nothing reliever. When he's on, he's as good as anyone in the game. When he's off, hide the women and children.

Better yet, hide everyone, because it would have been darn near impossible for anyone with a rooting interest in the Nationals to watch Rodriguez's ninth-inning meltdown Tuesday night, resulting in a soul-crushing, 5-4 loss to the Pirates.

"Tough loss," said Adam LaRoche, who for about five minutes figured to be the hero of an uplifting victory. "Tough loss, man."

Rodriguez's second blown save in his last three opportunities was a product of two things: 1) His inability to throw a slider the full 60 feet, 6 inches, and 2) His subsequent need to rely on a fastball with the game on the line and everyone inside PNC Park knowing it.

The trouble began with one out in the ninth, when Alex Presley singled to left-center. Even so, Rodriguez jumped ahead of Yamaico Navarro 0-2 and needed just one more pitch to record the second out of the inning. Instead, he bounced an 84 mph slider in the dirt, and catcher Wilson Ramos was unable to keep the ball in front of him. Presley advanced to second on the wild pitch.

"He was in 0-2 counts, had to throw something in the ground and tried to get the hitters to swing at a bad pitch," Ramos said. "But, you know, it's hard to block those pitches. Sometimes you try to block the ball, and sometimes it hits off whatever side of my body and you run to the other side."

The count now 1-2, Ramos again called for a slider. And Rodriguez again bounced it in the dirt, the ball nearly skipping all the way into the Pittsburgh dugout. Presley took third base on Rodriguez's major-league-leading sixth wild pitch (five of them having come in his two blown saves).

"He tried to be too perfect," backup catcher Jesus Flores said, interpreting for Rodriguez. "He missed the spot and he tried too hard, but he just missed the location where he wanted to."

Rodriguez did rebound to strike out Navarro on a 99 mph fastball at the letter, but he still needed one more out to secure the win. The problem: With the tying run now at third, another slider in the dirt would spell disaster. So Rodriguez knew he had to start off Pittsburgh's Rod Barajas with a fastball.

"After seeing those two breaking balls in the dirt, chances were he wasn't going to throw that again," said Barajas, who stepped to the plate with a .127 batting average and zero home runs. "I'm a fastball hitter, and I wasn't going to let one go by."

He sure didn't. Though Rodriguez's first pitch was up and in, it registered a mere 96 mph, down a few ticks from every other fastball he threw in the inning. And Barajas destroyed it, launching the ball into the left-field bleachers for a walk-off, two-run homer.

"Definitely he was looking for the fastball," Rodriguez said through Flores.

"He's been so good with both pitches, there's no sense in not using one," said manager Davey Johnson, who added he'll stick with Rodriguez as his closer. "That's just part of maturing into a quality closer. Probably trying to make both pitches too good, trying to throw them too hard instead of just locating with something on it. He'll learn from that."

The evening's storyline had been set up perfectly, with LaRoche delivering a two-run homer off Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan in the top of the ninth to give the Nationals a 4-3 lead. LaRoche's blast -- the 1,000th home run in Nationals history -- capped a fantastic return from a sore oblique for the veteran first baseman, who went 2-for-3 with a single and a walk to go along with the homer.

In the end, though, the LaRoche home run was an afterthought as the Nationals lost yet another nip-and-tuck game on the road. They're now 8-0 in one-run games at home, 1-6 in one-run games away from Nationals Park.

And those one-run losses sting even more when they come about via a walk-off homer against a young reliever pressed into closing duties after two guys ahead of him on the depth chart succumbed to injury.

"I feel terrible for Henry," LaRoche said. "He wants to win as badly as anybody. Being able to throw 100 and having the guy run into it, it's frustrating."

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Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

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USA TODAY

Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

Welcome to Inside Baseball. Here, we're taking a quick peek at what's going on ... inside ... baseball. 

We're almost a month into the MLB season, and that sweet noise you hear is the sound of sample sizes starting to become reliable! So far, the Red Sox are very good except for the nights they're getting no-hit, Derek Jeter's Marlins and their .227 winning percentage "aren't accepting a losing culture," and Mike Trout is well on his way to another historically-great 3rd place finish in the MVP race. 

AT NATS PARK

As it stands today, the Nationals are sitting in 4th in the NL East. It's early, they haven't been healthy, etc. etc., whatever. It hasn't been great. Their pitching staff features the best rotation in baseball paired alongside one of the worst bullpens in baseball. No bullpen in baseball has a higher homerun/flyball percentage (18%) than the Nationals. Only two teams - the Rockies and the Royals - strand runners on base at a lower clip than the Nationals (64.0 LOB%). If you really want to get into the weeds, their Win Probabilty and Clutch numbers tell a grim story too. 

Don't smash that panic button yet, though (maybe just lightly rest your hand on it?). There are a few reasons to believe that maybe the bullpen isn't actually as bad as they've been the first month.  They're striking out hitters at an elite level so far - only the Brewers and the Yankees have better K/9 and K% numbers than the Nats.  If you take take a look back at which bullpens led the league in strikeout numbers over the last handful of years, you'll see a *lot* of playoff teams. In the three-true-outcome era, having a bullpen that gets swings-and-misses is inarguably valuable. The Nats have that. 

Taking a look at their individual numbers, it's clear there's an excellent backend hidden somewhere in the bullpen right now. Sammy Solis' ERA is almost four runs higher than his FIP (fielding-independent pitching), a clear sign that Solis has pitched well but been a victim of the Nats' shoddy defense. The same goes for Ryan Madson, whose ERA sits at almost seven despite an FIP under three. Assuming that bullpen roles become more established once the data catches up, the Nats' bullpen could look a lot better in a month or two. 

AROUND BASEBALL

What you should know: Manny Machado's half-season showcase is going swimmingly. He's slashing .360/.447/.708 with eight homers through the first month or so of games. He's posted a 208 wRC+, which is a fancy way of saying he's been 108 percent better than league average at the plate so far. He's been the most valuable hitter this season and the second-most valuable player overall. Meanwhile, the Orioles are 6-17 and already 12 games out of first place in the AL East. It hasn't even been a month yet. Is this the year the the MLB trade deadline is exciting?!

What you should watch: Angels @ Astros (4/24-4/25)

Shohei Ohtani is pitching on Tuesday night, so that's reason enough. But, if you need more, there's also Mike Trout, the defending World Series champs, and Justin Verlander pitching on Wednesday. It also happens to be a battle between the best two teams in the AL West, separated by half a game for first place. If there's such a thing as exciting April baseball, it looks like this. 

Player of the week: I know we already talked about him, but no one's been better than Manny Machado over the last seven days. He's hitting .500/.586/1.208 with five homers during that span. After being bit by historically bad luck during the first half of last season, Machado has been putting up monster numbers ever since:

Random baseball gif: 

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Nats give up monster HR, drop series-opener with Giants

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USA TODAY Sports

Nats give up monster HR, drop series-opener with Giants

SAN FRANCISCO  -- Mac Williamson hit a two-run homer in the sixth to lead the Giants past the Washington Nationals 4-2 on Monday night.

Chris Stratton (2-1) struck out five over 6 2/3 innings, allowing two runs and four hits.

Williamson, playing his first home game at AT&T Park this season after being called up during the recent road trip, connected with a deep drive to right-center off Shawn Kelley after he relieved starter Gio Gonzalez (2-2). Gonzalez walked Brandon Belt to end his day before Williamson crushed the first pitch he saw from Kelley.

The 464-foot shot by Williamson is the furthest homer by the Giants this year, topping his previous 434-foot homer Friday after he was promoted to face the Angels in Anaheim. Earlier Monday, Williamson drove in his team's initial run on a fielder's choice in the fourth.

Only three home runs have travelled further in 2018, according to MLB StatCast: Franchy Cordero (489), Avisail Garcia (481) and Marcell Ozuna (479)

San Francisco kicked off a 10-game homestand by winning back-to-back games for only the second time this season and first since April 4-7. The Giants were coming off their first series victory of the season against the Angels.

The Nationals' runs came on a pair of sacrifice flies, by Howie Kendrick in the third and pinch-hitter Andrew Stevenson in the seventh.

Gonzalez allowed three runs and four hits, struck out four and walked three in five innings.

In his only other start against Washington, Stratton threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts last Aug. 13.

Hunter Strickland, who brawled with Bryce Harper during Washington's last visit to AT&T Park in late May 2017, finished for his fourth save in six chances. Harper didn't bat in the ninth.

NATS TRADE COLE

Washington traded right-hander A.J. Cole to the New York Yankees for cash. The 26-year-old Cole was 1-1 with a 13.06 ERA in four games for the Nationals and was designated for assignment last week.

BAKER REUNION

Ex-Nationals manager Dusty Baker, who guided Washington to back-to-back NL East titles before his firing after last season, visited the ballpark to see his former club.

Did he plan the visit in advance?

"Maybe," Baker said, grinning.

Nats pitcher Stephen Strasburg hustled out to give Baker a big hug behind the batting cage.

"What's up Dusty, how you doing?" Strasburg said.

Baker also visited with third base coach Bob Henley, the loan holdover from his coaching staff.

Baker is now working in an advisory role to Giants CEO Larry Baer while getting to watch son, Darren, play his freshman college season at California in Berkeley.

"I am good," Baker said. "How bad can it be between Cal, San Francisco and Sacramento?"

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: OF Adam Eaton, on the disabled list retroactive to April 9 with a bone bruise in his left ankle, won't be rushed back until he is completely pain-free. "When you see him in the lineup he'll be ready," manager Dave Martinez said. "He's coming along. When we get him back this time we don't want any issues." ... OF Brian Goodwin remains in Florida with pain in his bruised left wrist.

Giants: LHP Will Smith is eagerly anticipating his return from Tommy John surgery that cost him all of last season, and he could come off the DL as soon as Tuesday. He pitched twice for Class-A San Jose and three times so far for Triple-A Sacramento. He is scheduled to throw consecutive days for Sacramento on Wednesday and Thursday then another short outing Sunday. "We're close. We're getting there," Smith said, noting it will be "awesome. I'm ready to go." ... RHP closer Mark Melancon (flexor strain in pitching elbow) is scheduled to play catch during Thursday's off day. There is no timetable for his return, manager Bruce Bochy said. ... LF Hunter Pence (sprained right thumb) did some hitting and is scheduled for early batting practice Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Giants lefty Ty Blach (1-3, 4.10 ERA) will face the Nationals for the first time in his career when he pitches the middle game of the series opposite right-hander Tanner Roark (1-1, 3.24).