Nationals' extra-inning woes reach new lows

Nationals' extra-inning woes reach new lows
July 8, 2014, 12:45 am
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The Nationals, on paper, should be as formidable an extra-inning foe as anyone in baseball. Between a dominant and deep bullpen, a productive and deep lineup and a veteran-laden bench, they appear well-constructed to come up big the later the clock reads.

How then to explain their actual results this season? Monday's 8-2, 11-inning loss to the Orioles was only the latest, most-extreme example of the Nationals' late-night woes. They're now 2-8 in extra innings this year, an inexplicable stat that nobody appears to be able to decipher.

"It'll turn around," said reliever Craig Stammen, who gave up five of Baltimore's six 11th-inning runs. "Those games even out sooner or later."

Perhaps they will. Perhaps this is all just a statistical anomaly that normalizes over time. The stats right now, though, aren't pretty.

In innings 1-through-9, the Nationals are hitting a collective .249 and scoring an average of 4.2 runs. In innings 10 and beyond, they're hitting a paltry .184, having scored eight total runs in 28 total innings.

One of the majors' most-effective bullpens, meanwhile, has crumbled once summoned to work overtime. Nationals relievers sport a collective 2.26 ERA when pitching anything through the ninth inning. After that, their ERA balloons to 6.67.

"You have specialty pitchers at the back of bullpens," manager Matt Williams said. "With the exception of our last inning, you could arguably say the same thing with our guys who came in (earlier: Tyler Clippard, Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen). They're just specialty pitchers, so you can match up. I'm not concerned about that. We had an opportunity to get it done in the ninth, and it didn't happen for us."

The Nationals indeed had a golden opportunity to avoid extra innings altogether, setting themselves up for a potential game-winning rally in the bottom of the ninth. Having tied things up 2-2 thanks to Anthony Rendon's sixth-inning homer off Chris Tillman, they got a one-out double from Ryan Zimmerman, forcing Baltimore manager Buck Showalter to intentionally walk the slumping Bryce Harper and set up a double-play scenario for Ian Desmond.

Desmond historically has thrived in those situations — he was 11-for-17 in his career after the batter in front of him was intentionally walked — but he stood little chance against Orioles sidewinder Darren O'Day. Desmond whiffed on two straight high fastballs, then after fouling off two pitches he flailed at a breaking ball to strike out. Wilson Ramos followed suit, striking out on five pitches to leave the winning run stranded on second base and send this one to extras.

Desmond and Ramos each turned down postgame interview requests.

"You figure that a right-handed, sidearm pitcher, the ball sinks a lot," Williams said. "But he was throwing balls up in the strike zone. That's difficult to see, because it comes down here and it takes a different angle than you're used to – up-to-down as opposed to down-to-up. That's why he's in that spot, because he's really tough on right-handed hitters. We had an opportunity. Just didn't happen."

The Orioles made the most of their opportunity in the 11th, and then some. Stammen entered from the bullpen, fully prepared to go as many innings as the Nationals needed, a role he has cherished for several seasons. But he never even made it through that frame, torched for back-to-back home runs by Chris Davis and J.J. Hardy, with three more singles thrown in for good measure before he was unceremoniously yanked.

Stammen's biggest issue? His slider, which felt good while warming up in the bullpen but fell flat once he entered the game. "One of those driving-range sliders I had today," he said, trying to crack a smile.

"I made some good pitches with my fastball, but my slider was just so bad that it didn't really matter what happened," he added. "But I felt confident, I felt like I put [the first homer] behind me. It just didn't work out."

For three months now, it just hasn't worked out for the Nationals in extra innings.

They have no explanation for it. They can only hope their fortunes change over the next three months.