The Nationals, as was noted here at the start of the week, probably need to win two out of every three games they play the rest of the season to win the NL East title. It may not require quite that many wins, or it may even require a few more. But taking 2-of-3 the rest of the way at least puts them in strong position to make the postseason.
So in some respects, a win Thursday night in Denver would’ve been gravy. The Nationals already had taken the first two games of their series with the Rockies, at least temporarily righting their wayward ship, so regardless they were going to come happy at the end of an otherwise brutal West Coast trip.
Except for one teeny little fact: Thursday’s game was so there for the taking, and the Nats gave it away.
Their 3-2 loss at Coors Field was among the more frustrating losses in a season full of them. They somehow lost a Max Scherzer-Yohan Flande pitching matchup. Flande somehow got two hits off Scherzer, including a 2-out infield chopper in the bottom of the sixth that brought home a run. Then they somehow managed not to plate at least one run off a Colorado bullpen that had only given up 30 runs over its last 18 innings.
And so this ultimately felt more like a letdown than an encouraging three days in the thin mountain air. Yes, the Nationals did what they were supposed to do. They took 2-of-3. But, man, were they close to taking 3-of-3 and really starting to put some pressure on the Mets.
Let’s focus on perhaps the two most significant moments of the game: The Rockies scoring the go-ahead run in the seventh off Blake Treinen, and the Nationals failing to score the tying run in the ninth off John Axford…
That bottom of the seventh was tense, because Matt Williams was trying to keep the game tied against the heart of the Colorado lineup while using a couple of less-experienced, less-trusted members of his much maligned bullpen.
After Scherzer gave up a leadoff single to Jose Reyes, Williams emerged from the dugout, signaling for Felipe Rivero. The lefty reliever’s task: Merely get one of the game’s best and hottest hitters, Carlos Gonzalez, out in a huge spot. And Rivero almost did it, getting Gonzalez to hit a groundball to the left side of the infield. Except that groundball was perfectly placed near the third-base line, well to the left of Yunel Escobar’s position.
So now with two on, nobody out and the right-handed Nolan Arenado at the plate, Williams again strolled to the mound, this time to summon Blake Treinen, whose inconsistencies this season have been well-noted. This immediately led to a backlash from fans who wanted a more-reliable right-hander for this spot: Casey Janssen or Drew Storen.
Here’s the problem: Janssen had pitched the previous two nights. He hasn’t pitched three straight nights at all this season, and so he was unavailable. Storen, meanwhile, was being saved for whatever situation might still arise before this game was over, whether the eighth inning, the ninth or perhaps even something beyond that.
Besides, isn’t Treinen supposed to be able to get those kind of outs? Well, actually he did. Treinen fooled Arenado with a high slider on a 1-2 count and struck him out. He just couldn’t get the next guy, the left-handed Ben Paulsen, who blooped an RBI single to shallow center, giving the Rockies a lead they would not relinquish.
Treinen’s struggles against lefties are well-known. So why let him face a lefty? Because Matt Thornton, the only other available southpaw in the Nationals’ bullpen, needed to be saved for later (that turned out to be the bottom of the eighth).
Look, as much as you think you want your manager to play matchups in a big situation, you really can’t burn up three relievers in the seventh inning of a tie game on Aug. 20, at the end of a long road trip with no off-day before a long homestand begins the following night. There is a bigger picture that needs to be taken into consideration, and that’s often the toughest thing for outsiders to accept.
Even if the bullpen decisions worked, it still couldn’t have overcome the fact the Nationals couldn’t score the other run necessary to win this game.
They had their chance in the top of the ninth, when Bryce Harper led off with a sharp single up the middle off Axford, owner of four blown saves in the last 30 days alone. Unfortunately, the Nationals never made contact again in the game. And it’s tough to drive home the tying run when you fail to make contact once.
Some credit, though, needs to go to Axford, especially for the surprise 3-2 curveball he threw to Escobar for the first out of the inning, a perfectly placed pitch on the inside corner that caught Escobar completely by surprise.
Ian Desmond had less of a quality at-bat moments later, striking out on a 91-mph slider right at the top of the strike zone, but Ryan Zimmerman battled through a 7-pitch plate appearance to draw a 2-out walk and give Michael Taylor a chance with the tying runner in scoring position.
Taylor had wowed everybody in attendance two innings earlier when he crushed a baseball 493 feet to the left of center field, the longest home run hit in the major leagues this season, according to MLB’s StatCast system. All that was needed this time, though, was a single that would’ve scored Harper and tied the game.
Taylor wasn’t able to do that. He battled himself, fouling off a couple of pitches, but couldn’t connect with a high, 97-mph on a 2-2 count and thus ended the game in disappointing fashion.
As Taylor stood there for a moment, eyes closed, you sensed he realized he missed a golden opportunity to deliver a series sweep to the Nationals.
That’s probably how everybody felt at the end of a frustrating night at the end of a still-promising series at the end of a very frustrating road trip.
MORE NATIONALS: Ripken says he had 'serious' talks about becoming Nats manager