There is perhaps no bigger gamble in baseball than swinging at a 3-0 pitch. It’s the ultimate high-risk, high-reward play, at times producing game-changing hits at crucial moments while at other times stopping potential rallies dead in their tracks.
The Nationals, as a team, like to take that risk. They preach an aggressive approach at the plate, typically giving their hitters the green light to swing away on 3-0 counts, and they’ve enjoyed their share of success when doing it.
Entering Wednesday, Nationals hitters were 7-for-14 with two homers and a double when putting a 3-0 pitch into play. Only the Astros (8-for-16) have attempted it more times and/or produced more hits this season.
“We do it all the time,” manager Matt Williams said. “We do it with Jayson [Werth]. We do the same with Bryce [Harper]. We do it with just about everybody in our lineup. Pick a pitch and get one to hit.”
So when the situation arose at a critical juncture during Wednesday night’s 6-5 loss to the Padres — runners on the corners, one out, the Nationals trailing by a run — Williams didn’t think twice about giving Yunel Escobar the green light with a 3-0 count against left-hander Marc Rzepczynski.
And when Escobar got a pitch he liked — a sinker below the waist but over the heart of the plate — he took a hack, hoping to elevate the ball, drive it to the outfield somewhere and at worst drive in the tying run. Except he wound up pounding it into the ground, sending a chopper toward the left side of the infield, setting in motion a 5-4-3 double play turned by the Padres that brought every ounce of momentum the Nationals had been building throughout a furious rally to a screeching halt.
“I just thought it was the right situation,” Escobar said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I felt I got a good pitch and was unable to do what I was trying to do.”
The double play came at the worst possible time for the Nationals, who had rallied from five runs down to get within a sacrifice fly of tying the game. Werth and Anthony Rendon had just drawn back-to-back walks, with Harper adding a 2-run single to center off Rzepczynski to bring Escobar to the plate. Ryan Zimmerman, who had launched a grand slam Tuesday night and driven in runs in each of his previous two at-bats Wednesday, stood in the on-deck circle.
“It’s a good situation for him,” Williams said. “He’s hitting [fifth] in our lineup. [It’s a good time] to pick a pitch and get it airborne. He just happened to get on top of that one.”
Escobar nearly beat the throw to first, but his headfirst slide — always a controversial move in that situation — left him about six inches short of the base when San Diego’s Yonder Alonso caught the ball.
“Definitely you want to try to get Zim up in that situation in the seventh, but it just didn’t roll that way,” Harper said. “Yuni’s been great for us all year. Just happens that way sometimes.”
It seems to happening that way a lot for the Nationals these days. Though they’ve played markedly better baseball over the last week, winning 5 of 8 and still sporting a chance to win three consecutive series Thursday night, they simply can’t keep up pace with the white-hot Mets. With a 9-4 victory in Philadelphia on Wednesday, New York won its sixth straight and extended its lead in the NL East to 6 1/2 games.
While the Mets demolish lesser competition — they’re 13-0 this month against the Marlins, Rockies and Phillies — the Nationals are left with zero margin for error. That made Wednesday’s loss all the tougher to swallow, because there were any number of missed opportunities that could have altered the outcome of this game.
Escobar was charged with a costly error in the top of the third when he mishandled a potential double-play grounder, then threw wildly to first. “Obviously I had trouble taking it out [of my glove], and there’s certain things I can’t control,” he said. “I wish I made the play, but that’s how baseball goes.”
Gio Gonzalez could’ve bailed out his third baseman but followed the error by allowing a 2-run double to Matt Kemp and then a 2-run homer to Justin Upton. Upton later homered again, this time off Doug Fister, an insurance run that proved huge by night’s end.
The Padres also scored a run in the top of the fourth when Zimmerman made an over-the-shoulder catch of a foul ball well down the first-base line and Austin Hedges tagged up from third to score. Perhaps Zimmerman, knowing he had no realistic shot at throwing out Hedges, could have purposely let the popup fall to the ground in foul territory. But in that moment, it didn’t happen.
Such is life for the Nationals right now. Every little mistake or missed opportunity looms large.
And none loomed larger Wednesday night than a double play on a 3-0 pitch at a critical moment.
“I can remember back to Jayson hitting a 3-0 grand slam last year,” Williams said. “I can remember a lot of success in those situations. So you have to take that with you when it doesn’t happen for you. But we can’t change the way we play. We must try to take advantage of those opportunities. You can look at it a million ways. I’m not gonna put the handcuffs on him 2-0, and I’m certainly not gonna do it 3-1. It’s an opportunity for him to pick a pitch to drive to get airborne. It didn’t happen tonight. We’re not gonna change the way we play. We do it all the time. And 3-0 swings are a big part of our game. We’ve had a lot of success doing it. It didn’t happen tonight.”
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