NEW YORK — There is, of course, the biggest underlying problem for the Nationals that has stretched over the last two weeks: A team-wide offensive slump. But when a team isn’t scoring runs with any regularity, it must find other ways to win close, low-scoring ballgames. And that means every key decision made, whether by the manager or by the players themselves, must be the right decision.
Whether the Nationals made the right decisions at several critical moments of Tuesday night’s 6-1 loss to the Yankees is debatable. Perhaps each decision was correct and it was the subsequent execution that failed.
Whatever the case, none of these decisions worked out in the end, and because of that the Nationals lost for the ninth time in 11 games, this one in particularly frustrating fashion.
The most-significant decisions came during a fateful bottom of the seventh, in what was at that point a tense, 1-1 ballgame. That inning began with Max Scherzer taking the mound, his pitch count at an even 100, the Nats’ bullpen quiet.
“I felt great,” Scherzer said afterward. “I was on seven days’ rest. I could’ve pitched all night.”
The veteran right-hander has a proven track record for running his pitch count well into triple digits, having thrown 115 or more pitches 42 times in his career, 120 or more pitches 12 times over the years. And so manager Matt Williams stuck with his ace, even as the Yankees hit a couple balls hard, even as they put two men on with one out, even as Scherzer hit the 115-pitch mark with Alex Rodriguez stepping to the plate.
“We want to push him through that inning if we can, allow him to potentially get us through,” Williams said.
Scherzer nearly did make it through the inning unscathed, with the game still knotted at 1. But then came another fateful decision, this one by Ian Desmond that might have altered the outcome of the evening.
With two on and two out, Rodriguez smoked Scherzer’s first pitch toward the left side of the infield. Off the bat, Scherzer thought it was a base hit. Then he saw Desmond make a tremendous, backhanded grab of the sharp grounder. Except now the shortstop had a decision to make, and he had all of perhaps two-tenths of a second to make that decision.
The choices: 1) Try to throw the lead runner out at third base, the shortest throw in that situation, 2) Try to hop up and fire all the way across the diamond to get Rodriguez at first base, or 3) Just hold onto the ball, concede the bases to everybody and take a shot at the next batter, Mark Teixeira.
Desmond chose option No. 1, and though his throw to third base appeared to beat Ramon Flores, it also hit the runner on the thigh, skipping into the dugout and forcing the go-ahead run home.
“Third was right there. There was an out there,” said Desmond, who was charged with his 14th error of the season on that play. “It wasn’t like there wasn’t an out. Both plays, looking back, would’ve been close. It would’ve been a close play at third. If I would’ve gotten up and threw across to first, it probably would’ve been a close play over there. It wasn’t like I was straight-up there. I was pretty far in the hole. It’s not a throw that I can’t make, but neither is the one to third.”
Williams didn’t offer a full-on criticism of Desmond’s decision, though the manager did suggest his preference would’ve been a throw to first base, recognizing who was running down the line.
“If the throw is to the left side of the runner, we’ve got a chance,” Williams said. “But we’ve also got a slower runner in Alex at the plate. He’s not a speedster, speed demon. So if [Desmond] dives and catches that, he’s got a play at first, as well. Depends on the angle, of course, and where he’s going. But Desi’s got a play at first, too.”
Had the Nationals been able to clamp down and stop the bleeding there, they might have had a realistic shot at rallying against the Yankees’ formidable bullpen and still pulling off a victory. But things only got worse after the Desmond error. Left-hander Matt Thornton entered to replace Scherzer and was instructed to intentionally walk Teixeira, loading the bases again for Brian McCann … who promptly singled home two runs. Carlos Beltran followed with his own RBI single, and just like that a 2-1 deficit became a 5-1 deficit.
And given the current state of the Nationals’ lineup, that was far more offensive production than could be expected. This team has now scored two or fewer runs in 12 of its last 17 games.
How desperate did things get Tuesday night? So desperate that Bryce Harper, who had homered off Masahiro Tanaka in the top of the fourth, decided to try to bunt against the Japanese right-hander three innings later, on a 1-2 count. Harper fouled off the pitch and thus was called out on strikes, left to explain his unusual decision.
“If I lay it down perfect — actually, not even if I lay it down perfect but down the third-base side — I’m safe at first base and then I’m on first base with [Ryan Zimmerman] coming up,” Harper said. “It happens. I’ve done it before. I’ve bunted with two strikes before at the big-league level. It was in my head the whole time when I went 1-2. I went with my gut and it didn’t work.”
Harper’s manager didn’t appear to agree with this call.
“We’ll save that one for another day,” Williams said tersely when asked about the surprise bunt attempt.
Just another key decision that didn’t work out on a night full of them.