Does this sound familiar: The Nationals scratch and claw their way to take a 5-3 lead against a first-place club into the sixth or seventh inning, only to watch that lead fritter away and ultimately lose by a score of 8-5?
It should sound familiar, because it just happened Monday against the Mets.
And last Tuesday against the Cardinals.
And last Monday against the Cardinals.
Yes, the Nationals' last three losses have all come in exactly the same fashion, with a 5-3 lead blown in the sixth inning or later, resulting in a final score of 8-5. In between all that, they've managed to win seven other games. So, really, had they just been able to hold those three late leads, they'd be riding a 10-game winning streak right and sit a mere 2 games behind the Mets in the NL East instead of the current 5.
They didn't do that, of course, and so they find themselves in their current predicament. So, how did Monday's middle-innings meltdown come about?
It began, really, in the bottom of the fifth, when manager Matt Williams faced his first real decision of the day: Pinch-hit for Max Scherzer with two on, two out and the Nats leading 5-4, or let the pitcher bat for himself?
Williams elected to leave Scherzer in, sacrificing a shot at expanding the lead in exchange for at least one more inning from his starter, who was at 89 pitches at the time.
"He's our best option in the sixth inning," the manager said afterward. "He's got pitches left. We want to make sure we're getting to the eighth. He's at [89 pitches] and he's got the lead. He's our No. 1 for a reason."
Scherzer did actually hit the ball hard, but right at second baseman Wilmer Flores, and so the fifth inning was over and the right-hander prepared to re-take the mound, trying to protect a 5-4 lead. Right away, Yoenis Cespedes doubled. And right away, the Nationals' bullpen sprung into action ... though that group wasn't called upon to pitch until the seventh, after Scherzer had allowed the tying run via a balk and a sacrifice fly that scored Cespedes from third.
When the relief corps was finally summoned, it was all hands on deck. Williams began the seventh with Blake Treinen, who has been highly effective against right-handed hitters this season (.183 batting average against, .494 OPS against) but not so much against left-handed hitters (.351 batting average against, .914 OPS against).
Treinen gave up a leadoff single to Flores (a right-handed batter) and then barely threw him out at second base on Ruben Tejada's attempted sacrifice bunt. And that was it for him. Enter Felipe Rivero to face the left-handed Curtis Granderson.
This, according to Williams, proved to be the crucial plate appearance of the inning. Rivero has been a revelation lately — he entered Monday having retired 13 consecutive batters over his last three outings — but he wound up walking Granderson to put runners on first and second with one out.
With David Wright stepping to the plate and the left-handed Daniel Murphy behind him, Williams could have stuck with Rivero, who has enjoyed success lately against both lefties and righties. But the Granderson walk changed everything, and so Williams found himself walking back to the mound again for another pitching change, this time bringing in right-hander Casey Janssen.
"If [Rivero] gets Granderson, we let him go through and get to [Murphy]," Williams said. "But since he walked him, a base hit there, they end up taking the lead.
Which is exactly what Wright did, though not against the left-handed Rivero but against the right-handed Janssen, who surrendered an RBI single that gave the Mets the lead for good.
For Janssen, who gave up seven total runs during last week's losses to the Cardinals, was pitching on the third straight day, something he hadn't previously done with the Nationals. He made no excuse for that, though.
"No, if you can't get up for situations like this," Janssen said, his voice trailing off. "It's always fun to pitch in situations like this. Adrenaline takes care of everything."
Janssen didn't have much time to get the adrenaline flowing, because he was pulled after facing only one batter, giving way to veteran left-hander Matt Thornton to try and get out of the inning without any more damage. Thornton, though, gave up a sacrifice fly to left that scored Granderson and then an RBI double to Cespedes, one of the least-favorable matchups for the day.
"Looking to get a groundball from Murphy," Thornton said of his plan-of-attack against the first batter he faced. "That's why I threw him inside so many times, hoping to get a double play there with Cespedes hitting on-deck. At the same time, trying to make sure I get an out. I didn't want him to do what he did do. But he had a hell of an at-bat. Fouled off some really really good pitches and got his job done."
Thus, a 5-5 game turned into an 8-5 deficit, one the Nationals would never make up. Which has become the norm around here.
Fifteen times this season they have taken a lead into the sixth inning and wound up losing. Last season, it only happened eight times.
And lately, it feels like the same thing is happening over and over.