And you thought Monday's loss was tough to watch?
What transpired Tuesday in St. Louis made the previous night's game feel pedestrian, as if it was just some run-of-the-mill loss every team suffers during the course of the season. It wasn't, of course, but the Nationals' 8-5 loss Tuesday — coincidentally the exact same score as the night before — bordered on the inexplicable.
Seriously, how do you explain this game after the fact to someone who paid no attention to it? The Nats jumped out to a 4-0 lead, but Joe Ross lost all ability to find the strike zone and was yanked in the bottom of the third. Matt Williams then coaxed 4 1/3 scoreless innings out of Doug Fister, Matt Thornton, Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero, only to cringe as Drew Storen blew a 2-run lead in the eighth and then as Casey Janssen served up a walk-off, 3-run homer to Brandon Moss in the bottom of the ninth, all while a fully rested Jonathan Papelbon watched helplessly from the bullpen.
Does that even adequately describe the events that unfolded at Busch Stadium, where (by the way) the Nationals have now lost nine consecutive games dating back to Game 1 of the 2012 NLDS?
It has become a nightly ritual to play the blame game with this team. And certainly given the manner in which they've been losing games — their last four have either been by 1 run or after taking a lead into the seventh inning or later — it's an appropriate exercise.
So who gets the blame for this one? There were multiple offenders...
— Joe Ross, for his third-inning meltdown. The rookie right-hander has been both effective and poised throughout his surprising run this summer, but he was neither in this game. Everything fell apart for him during the bottom of the third, when he walked four batters, including three in a row, hardly any of those pitches located anywhere near the strike zone. He wound up getting pulled after throwing 32 pitches in the inning, only 10 of them strikes. That immediately raised a fair question: Is Ross fatigued after throwing 145 1/3 total innings this season when he has never thrown more than 122 1/3 in any previous year as a pro? Afterward, he told reporters he simply couldn't get a good grip on the ball due to the humidity in St. Louis. Ross has never used the rosin bag before. If what happened Tuesday really was strictly the result of a sweaty hand, can we excuse him for not taking a moment to try it out during that fateful inning? Or anybody else on the club for not insisting that he try it?
— The Nats lineup, for essentially shutting down after scoring four runs off Marco Gonzales in the top of the third. The only other run of the night came in the top of the seventh, and it was unearned and came without benefit of a single ball that left the infield. Yes, five runs should be enough to win a game, as it was Tuesday. But the lack of continued offensive pressure after getting to the St. Louis bullpen early certainly contributed to the eventual outcome.
— Drew Storen, for blowing a 2-run lead in the eighth. This is really where the game was lost. Handed a 5-3 lead, Storen proceeded to give up a leadoff single to Tommy Pham before plunking Brandon Moss with a 1-2 slider way down and in. Then he fielded Greg Garcia's sacrifice bunt attempt and foolishly tried to throw out Pham at third base. The ball wound up sailing past Yunel Escobar and rolling into the left-field corner (more on that in a moment) as a run came home. Storen told reporters afterward the throw was "right over the bag." That might be a bit off, but regardless of the location of the throw, the timing of it was questionable. At best, it was going to be a bang-bang play. Which means it wasn't worth the risk. Get the sure out at first base and then move on from there. Storen didn't, and so when Stephen Piscotty grounded into a double play a couple batters later, the tying run crossed the plate because the inning couldn't yet be over. And so Storen's struggles continue: He has now given up runs in six of his last 10 appearances, a stretch during which he has posted a 12.10 ERA. He also now owns a 7.71 ERA and six blown saves in 19 career appearances against the Cardinals (including the 2012 postseason).
— Yunel Escobar, for not catching Storen's throw (or at least knocking it down) and then casually tracking it down after it got away. Maybe Escobar wasn't expecting it. Maybe he didn't have enough time to properly position himself. Whatever the reason, he didn't execute his portion of that play as well as he could have executed it. And his slow retrieval of the ball, after pausing to roll his eyes when the throw got away, made the whole thing worse. And none of it helped refute the notion that the Nationals would be better off with a better defensive alignment in the infield: Anthony Rendon at third, Danny Espinosa at second.
— Casey Janssen, for giving up the winning runs in the bottom of the ninth. Janssen gets less blame than others, though, because it was foolish to think he was going to get out of that inning unscathed given the fact he was running on fumes. The veteran reliever had already thrown 26 pitches the previous night while giving up the decisive 4 runs. Now he was asked to come right back the next night and show no signs of fatigue while doing it. The inning started off find for Janssen, who got Jason Heyward to ground out and Yadier Molina to pop out. But then he served up a double to Cody Stanley and then he walked Pham and then he left a 1-0 fastball up and out over the plate to Moss, who crushed it to center field for the game-winner. That home run came on the 47th pitch Janssen had thrown in the span of 24 hours, a terrifyingly high number for a veteran reliever who has dealt with shoulder problems the last few seasons. Which is why plenty of blame needs to go to...
— Matt Williams, for saving Jonathan Papelbon for a save opportunity that never came to fruition. Now, he's hardly the only manager in baseball who wouldn't use his closer in a tie game on the road. Many, probably most, would've done the same thing. The problem here was that the alternative was Janssen, who had thrown so much the night before and who didn't appear to have anything left in the tank, certainly by the time Moss stepped to the plate. Or Sammy Solis, who would've been a better lefty-lefty matchup against Moss but who was the only other pitcher left in the bullpen and thus was needed to be the long man in case the game kept going for awhile. None of the options was ideal. If Papelbon did pitch the ninth and didn't give up a run but his teammates scored off Trevor Rosenthal in the top of the 10th, who would've then closed out the game for the Nats? Janssen? Solis? Papelbon in his second inning of work? There was still plenty of opportunity for disaster, and while that doesn't excuse the manager for his bullpen usage, it does offer valid reason to hand out some blame to...
— Mike Rizzo, for not giving his manager more options that might have made these decisions easier. Tuesday was the first day of September, the first day major-league clubs are allowed to expand their active rosters beyond 25. Across the sport you saw teams add a bunch of reinforcements, as many as six or seven in some cases. The Nationals added three players: Solis, third catcher Pedro Severino and Dan Uggla. Why, with a pitching staff that has been struggling of late, weren't more arms called up? It's not as if the Nats won't be adding more players in the next few days. Why not bring those guys up as soon as they were eligible? If Williams knew he had a couple more fresh relievers available just in case the game kept going, he might have been more inclined to go to someone other than Janssen in the bottom of the ninth. The Nationals bullpen has been an area of concern since the day the club packed up in Viera and headed north. That it remains such a concern on September 1 is a troubling fact.
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