Bullpen blow-up dooms Nats against Braves

Bullpen blow-up dooms Nats against Braves
April 13, 2013, 12:45 am
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Detwiler's effort blown by bullpen

If the first of at least 19 games between the Nationals and Braves this season was a sign of what's to come, plan on bringing plenty of Maalox to the ballpark when these two NL East titans get together.

And don't be surprised if you still have a queasy feeling in your stomach when you leave the park at least a few more times.

Evenly matched from top to bottom, the Nationals and Braves are likely to engage in more than their share of intense theater over the next 5 1/2 months. The Nats will win their share of those tense games, but they're also going to come out on the wrong end from time to time, though they certainly hope none of the losses are as gut-wrenching as Friday's 6-4, 10-inning affair was.

This one, in which the Nationals blew a late 4-0 lead behind a bullpen implosion, shaky defense and an offensive shutdown after an early explosion, felt eerily similar to the loss they suffered on this very field six months ago to the day: Gam 5 of the NLDS against the Cardinals.

"I think we definitely need to learn from our mistakes," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "It's the same thing that kind of got us last year, and why we didn't maybe move on: Because we couldn't close games out, both pitching and defense-wise. We need to get better at that and learn from our mistakes."

Zimmerman committed one of the biggest mistakes himself, a throwing error with two outs in the top of the ninth on a difficult play he had little chance of making in the first place.

With the bases loaded and the Nationals still holding a 4-2 lead, Drew Storen -- pitching the ninth with regular closer Rafael Soriano shelved after pitching the previous three nights -- got Justin Upton to bounce a hard grounder down the third-base line. Zimmerman retreated to his right to snag the ball, planted his feet and then had to make the split-second decision what to do next.

He had perhaps four choices: 1) Try to beat Ramiro Pena to third base for a force out, 2) Try to throw across his body and get a force out at second base, 3) Try to throw all the way across the diamond and get Upton at first base, 4) Simply hold onto the ball, allow one run to score but give Storen a chance to face rookie Evan Gattis and close out the win.

"I think, obviously, first base is out of the question," Zimmerman explained later. "I'm not gonna beat the guy to third. I thought if I turn and make a perfect throw, I had a chance to get the guy bang-bang at second. ... It's really tough as a competitor to just catch the ball and throw it back to Drew and just have the bases loaded. In hindsight, obviously that would have been the better play."

Indeed, given the situation, Zimmerman would have been best-served admitting defeat on that play and giving Storen another chance to earn the save. Instead, he fired toward second base, only to send the ball sailing past a lunging Danny Espinosa and into right field, ultimately allowing the tying run to cross the plate.

"There's a lot of moving parts," Zimmerman said. "In the end, if I throw it a little bit higher or at his chest, maybe we get him. It's just a tough play. It's just one of those plays, they hit it in a perfect spot. You've got to live with it and move on."

Before they can move on, the Nationals will need to replay this loss in their heads for a few more hours. A game they seemingly had in control, with the lineup pouncing on Julio Teheran for four early runs and then Ross Detwiler churning out seven innings of one-run ball, came unglued once Davey Johnson turned to his bullpen.

That bullpen was reconfigured, with Soriano unavailable, but Johnson still had confidence Clippard and Storen could record the final six outs before giving up three runs. They couldn't, in large part because they couldn't find the strike zone with enough regularity.

Clippard issued three walks in the top of the eighth, including one to B.J. Upton with the bases loaded. Ball four came on his 35th pitch of the inning, a staggering total considering he faced only six Atlanta hitters.

"We need to do better," Clippard said. "Ross pitched a hell of a game. It hurts. It hurts, obviously, for the club to get the loss. But it hurts for him. ... To have your starter do what he did and not get the win for him is very, very disappointing for us as a group, and I know for me, too."

Clippard's high pitch count forced Johnson to pull him in mid-inning and thus ask Storen to complete a four-inning save. Storen got out of the eighth-inning jam but then immediately got into trouble in the ninth, allowing a pair of singles and a sacrifice bunt that put the tying run in scoring position.

After striking out Andrelton Simmons on an 0-2 slider, Storen still found himself one out from securing his first save of 2013. But he walked Jason Heyward, and that set up the key encounter with Upton.

"We're just not locating the ball," Johnson said, referring to his entire bullpen. "We're all over the place. I've got to take responsibility, probably overusing them or something. ... Det's pitched two great ballgames and come out with nothing. I feel real bad about that."

The game tied following Zimmerman's error, the two clubs went into extra innings, at which point Craig Stammen entered from the Nationals bullpen. He, too, got into quick trouble, issuing a one-out walk to Dan Uggla and then serving up a two-run homer to the light-hitting Pena that proved the difference in the game.

By night's end, the Nationals bullpen sported a collective 6.34 ERA, not to mention 14 walks issued in only 32 2/3 innings this season. Members of that unit insisted they're not collectively frustrated.

"I don't think so," Storen said. "I think that's one of the things about being a bullpen that makes us special down there: We have short memories and we understand that it's a long season. We're going to swallow that, learn from it, and move on."

The Nationals don't have much time to contemplate this one before moving on. They'll be right back on the same field at 1:05 p.m. Saturday, with Stephen Strasburg facing fellow ace Tim Hudson in the next chapter of this budding NL East rivalry.

"Let's get back out there," Johnson said.