When the obituaries for the 2015 Washington Nationals are written a few weeks from now — yes, some have already published them, but they’re not officially done yet, they’re just in hospice care — they will try to determine the cause of death.
Injuries to their lineup? Underwhelming performances from their star-studded rotation? A bullpen full of unreliable arms? A manager who rarely pushed the right buttons? A general manager who was unable to make the right roster adjustments along the way?
All contributed to the ultimate demise of this team. But in a broader sense, these Nationals will have been defined by the scenario that played out each of the last three nights, plus twice more last week, plus countless times earlier in the spring and summer: An inability to finish what they started.
Wednesday night’s 5-3 loss to the Mets was merely the latest in a string of late meltdowns, a repeat of what occurred Tuesday night, which was a repeat of what occurred Monday afternoon, which was a repeat of what occurred last week in St. Louis.
Consider that each of the Nationals’ last five losses came in games they led in the sixth inning or later. Simply finish those off, and this morning they’d look at the NL East standings and find themselves sitting all alone at the top, a game ahead of the Mets. Instead, those standings show them sitting firmly in second place, a full 7 games back.
And it’s not like this is only a recent trend. The Nationals now have lost 17 games they led in the sixth inning or later this year. That happened only eight times in 2014.
(On the flip side, they’ve won only seven games they trailed in the sixth inning or later this year. That happened 15 times in 2014.)
“The game doesn’t stop for anybody,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “I don’t care how good or bad you are, the game is going to keep on moving on. You just gotta keep your head up and keep on pushing forward, because otherwise it will swallow you right up.”
Nobody has been swallowed up lately like Drew Storen, who only 24 hours after suffering the worst meltdown of his career (regular-season category) was sent back into the lion’s den Wednesday night and didn’t emerge in one piece.
After watching his closer-turned-setup-man walk throw only 7-of-22 pitches for strikes Tuesday, manager Matt Williams said it was important to show confidence in Storen, to put him right back into a meaningful situation as soon as possible.
That situation came in the top of the eighth, the Nationals having just seen their 2-1 lead morph into a 2-2 tie after Stephen Strasburg (who pitched brilliantly all night) served up a leadoff homer to Kelly Johnson and later a 1-out single to Curtis Granderson. Yoenis Cespedes, the Mets’ recently acquired beast of a slugger, was due up, and so Williams made the long walk to the mound, signaling toward the right-field bullpen as the crowd of 27,530 booed.
“I want to do everything we can to win a baseball game,” Williams said. “I look at it … every morning I wake up and I look in the mirror and say: ‘Do whatever you have to do today to help us win a game.’ Drew’s in there tonight for the righty.”
Storen has been lights-out against right-handed hitters this season, holding them to a .138 batting average, .206 on-base percentage and .234 slugging percentage. But Cespedes is the rare right-handed hitter who enjoys far more success against fellow righties (.319 batting average, .927 OPS) than lefties (.220 batting average, .718 OPS).
Favorable matchup or not, it didn’t matter which side of the plate Cespedes occupied when Storen placed a 1-0 slider on a platter, then watched as the ball soared into the left-field bullpen.
It was the ninth time in 15 games Storen has surrendered a run, his ERA a whopping 9.22 over the last month.
“I’ve dealt with a fair share of adversity in my career,” he said. “I just gotta dig down and get through it. You gotta keep pushing. You gotta look forward. Like I said last night, you can’t change the past, but you can control what’s coming up. So you gotta make that adjustment.”
As was the case Tuesday (and Monday) the Nationals’ clubhouse was somber after this one. Despite a summer full of injuries, inconsistent performances, questionable moves and missed opportunities, this team still somehow entered the week with a realistic shot at taking back the division.
If only it could have found a way to do what it has struggled so many times this season to do: Finish what it started.
“Pretty devastating,” Desmond said. “We put ourselves in a good position. Coming into this series we were obviously not where we would have liked to be, but we gave ourselves a chance. Obviously we were a lot more optimistic coming into this series than exiting it.
“Is it over? No. Until the numbers tell you it’s over, it’s not over.”
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