Emotional Nationals blow late lead to Cubs

Emotional Nationals blow late lead to Cubs
May 12, 2013, 7:00 pm
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Bullpen can't hold lead for Gonzalez in 2-1 loss

There's no telling how Sunday's game at Nationals Park would have ended had Gio Gonzalez still been on the mound for the eighth and ninth innings, trying to finish off a 2-hit shutout. Perhaps the Nationals still would have found a way to lose to the Cubs amid a flurry of seeing-eye singles, a freak throw that ricocheted off a bat and a highly questionable strike zone from fill-in umpire John Tumpane.

To be sure, plenty of things went wrong for the Nationals over the final two innings of their 2-1 loss. But manager Davey Johnson's decision to pinch-hit for Gonzalez in the bottom of the seventh and entrust the rest of the game to his bullpen set in motion the chain of events that made it all possible.

"We've got a 1-run lead," Johnson explained. "Also, very seldom early in the season will I let a guy go out there and if he gets a guy on ... I don't want him to lose a ballgame late in the game. Just the way I manage. Chalk it up to me. You don't like it? Chalk it up to me. Didn't work out."

It didn't work out because Drew Storen entered for the eighth, immediately gave up a leadoff single to Dioner Navarro, then a two-out, RBI single up the middle to Starlin Castro. That tied the game 1-1 and left Gonzalez to suffer a no-decision, despite his brilliant performance on the mound.

And it didn't work out because Rafael Soriano entered for the ninth with the game tied, gave up two quick singles to Alfonso Soriano and Julio Borbon and then watched as those two Cubs pulled off a double-steal, with catcher Kurt Suzuki's deflecting off Welington Castillo's bat and scooting into foul territory down the third-base line, letting the winning run score.

Throw in an extraordinarily wide (and often inconsistent) strike zone from Tumpane, a 30-year-old umpire among MLB's minor-league fill-ins during the course of the season, and the Nationals were left trying to explain how exactly they lost this game — and this series — to the last-place Cubs.

"I think it was bad luck," Rafael Soriano said. "Bad day. I don't worry about that."

Gonzalez had been brilliant for seven innings, retiring the first 15 batters he faced and looking very much like he could go the distance, with his pitch count at 86. But with his team clinging to that 1-0 lead after several squandered opportunities earlier, Johnson felt like he had no choice but to send up pinch-hitter Chad Tracy to lead off the bottom of the seventh in place of his starter.

"It's a tough situation Davey was in," Gonzalez said. "A pitcher was up to bat, 1-0 game. You've just got to roll with the punches. It's just one of those situations where you can't do anything about it. I feel like we have a great bullpen that can definitely help us out all the time."

Tracy wound up striking out, leaving himself 1-for-13 off the bench this season. Denard Span and Steve Lombardozzi also made outs, ending a quick inning without the Nationals creating any more cushion for themselves.

"I'm trying to add on," Johnson said. "It's just the way I manage. Obviously, I'd have been better off in hindsight, but I have all the confidence in the world in my bullpen. They just didn't do it."

Storen, making only his third appearance in 13 days, gave up a quick single to Navarro to open the eighth, then watched as pinch-runner Travis Wood (a pitcher) took second base on a sacrifice bunt and third base on a foul-popout that forced Adam LaRoche to make an over-the-shoulder catch down the first-base line.

Castro then delivered a groundball single up the middle, bringing home Wood with the tying run.

"I'm not going to sit here and make an excuse about anything," Storen said. "I thought I made good pitches. You gotta get the first guy out. You do that, you have no problems."

The ninth-inning rally began with back-to-back singles off Rafael Soriano, who did then strike out Ryan Sweeney before the Cubs attempted the fateful double-steal. On that play, Suzuki hopped to his feet and tried to maneuver around the batter, Castillo, but his throw struck the bat and careened into the ground, then down the third-base line as Alfonso Soriano scampered home.

"When I work on that, I don't work on clearing the bat," Suzuki said. "I just make sure I don't hit the guy in the head. And obviously I didn't hit him in the head with the baseball. So I did my job, just I threw it and it hit the bat. ... Weird thing."

Perhaps the frustration of that play got the best of Suzuki in the bottom of the ninth, when he was ejected after arguing a called third strike that appeared well outside the zone, one of 11 such miscalls by Tumpane according to BrooksBaseball.net.

Suzuki's uncharacteristic outburst could well have come from anyone wearing a Nationals uniform at the end of what felt like a blown weekend in advance of a long, 11-game West Coast trip.

"Anytime you lose a ballgame, especially have the lead late and lose the ballgame, it's a missed opportunity," Johnson said. "No doubt about it. Regardless of the strike zone, we didn't swing the bats that good. We didn't really have that many opportunities to score. That's why when we did have an opportunity to score, I was gonna go for it."