A demoralizing meltdown for Nats

A demoralizing meltdown for Nats
May 9, 2012, 4:21 am
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PITTSBURGH -- Henry Rodriguez's "stuff" -- his triple-digit fastball and knee-buckling slider -- is as good as any repertoire in baseball.

"Stuff," though doesn't always translate into success. Especially when it comes to protecting a one-run lead in the ninth inning. As much as everyone would like to believe pitching is pitching, no matter the situation, decades of evidence have suggested there are some relievers who simply can't handle the pressure of closing a big-league game.

Whether Rodriguez falls into that category remains to be seen. He's been handed the ball in a save situation in the ninth inning only 10 times in his career, successfully preserving the win on eight occasions. That's not enough of a sample size to draw any conclusive resolutions.

This much we do know: Rodriguez is an all-or-nothing reliever. When he's on, he's as good as anyone in the game. When he's off, hide the women and children.

Better yet, hide everyone, because it would have been darn near impossible for anyone with a rooting interest in the Nationals to watch Rodriguez's ninth-inning meltdown Tuesday night, resulting in a soul-crushing, 5-4 loss to the Pirates.

"Tough loss," said Adam LaRoche, who for about five minutes figured to be the hero of an uplifting victory. "Tough loss, man."

Rodriguez's second blown save in his last three opportunities was a product of two things: 1) His inability to throw a slider the full 60 feet, 6 inches, and 2) His subsequent need to rely on a fastball with the game on the line and everyone inside PNC Park knowing it.

The trouble began with one out in the ninth, when Alex Presley singled to left-center. Even so, Rodriguez jumped ahead of Yamaico Navarro 0-2 and needed just one more pitch to record the second out of the inning. Instead, he bounced an 84 mph slider in the dirt, and catcher Wilson Ramos was unable to keep the ball in front of him. Presley advanced to second on the wild pitch.

"He was in 0-2 counts, had to throw something in the ground and tried to get the hitters to swing at a bad pitch," Ramos said. "But, you know, it's hard to block those pitches. Sometimes you try to block the ball, and sometimes it hits off whatever side of my body and you run to the other side."

The count now 1-2, Ramos again called for a slider. And Rodriguez again bounced it in the dirt, the ball nearly skipping all the way into the Pittsburgh dugout. Presley took third base on Rodriguez's major-league-leading sixth wild pitch (five of them having come in his two blown saves).

"He tried to be too perfect," backup catcher Jesus Flores said, interpreting for Rodriguez. "He missed the spot and he tried too hard, but he just missed the location where he wanted to."

Rodriguez did rebound to strike out Navarro on a 99 mph fastball at the letter, but he still needed one more out to secure the win. The problem: With the tying run now at third, another slider in the dirt would spell disaster. So Rodriguez knew he had to start off Pittsburgh's Rod Barajas with a fastball.

"After seeing those two breaking balls in the dirt, chances were he wasn't going to throw that again," said Barajas, who stepped to the plate with a .127 batting average and zero home runs. "I'm a fastball hitter, and I wasn't going to let one go by."

He sure didn't. Though Rodriguez's first pitch was up and in, it registered a mere 96 mph, down a few ticks from every other fastball he threw in the inning. And Barajas destroyed it, launching the ball into the left-field bleachers for a walk-off, two-run homer.

"Definitely he was looking for the fastball," Rodriguez said through Flores.

"He's been so good with both pitches, there's no sense in not using one," said manager Davey Johnson, who added he'll stick with Rodriguez as his closer. "That's just part of maturing into a quality closer. Probably trying to make both pitches too good, trying to throw them too hard instead of just locating with something on it. He'll learn from that."

The evening's storyline had been set up perfectly, with LaRoche delivering a two-run homer off Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan in the top of the ninth to give the Nationals a 4-3 lead. LaRoche's blast -- the 1,000th home run in Nationals history -- capped a fantastic return from a sore oblique for the veteran first baseman, who went 2-for-3 with a single and a walk to go along with the homer.

In the end, though, the LaRoche home run was an afterthought as the Nationals lost yet another nip-and-tuck game on the road. They're now 8-0 in one-run games at home, 1-6 in one-run games away from Nationals Park.

And those one-run losses sting even more when they come about via a walk-off homer against a young reliever pressed into closing duties after two guys ahead of him on the depth chart succumbed to injury.

"I feel terrible for Henry," LaRoche said. "He wants to win as badly as anybody. Being able to throw 100 and having the guy run into it, it's frustrating."