Are the Nationals still in the playoff hunt?
If the Nationals are going to complete a gargantuan comeback and actually make the postseason after falling 6 games below the .500 mark in early August — and the odds still are decidedly stacked against them doing it — they can't afford to come up short in clutch situations. They can't afford to make poor decisions at critical points of ballgames. And they certainly can't offer up anything less than 100 percent of their effort at any point between now and September 29.
The Nationals struggled in all three departments Friday night during a 3-2 loss to the Mets that felt like a golden opportunity squandered. Sure, they might have lost this game anyway. And every loss they suffer over the next four weeks is going to loom large.
But there was something about the way this one played out in the final two innings that might have left more of a bitter taste in everyone's mouths than previous losses.
The two critical moments involved two of their biggest stars: Ryan Zimmerman, who allowed the eventual decisive run to score on an ill-advised throw in the top of the eighth, and Bryce Harper, who had a couple of questionable swings in a huge spot in the bottom of the eighth and then failed to hustle down the first-base line upon grounding out to kill the rally.
"The thing about Bryce right now that's tough: He gets frustrated," said bench coach Randy Knorr, who had to take over for an ill Davey Johnson mid-game. "I don't think he does it intentionally, but he's gonna have to start picking it up a little bit, because we've got everybody else doing it. He gets frustrated at times and it just comes out of him. It's something we've got to fix."
Harper found himself at the plate for the biggest at-bat of the night, with two on and two out in the eighth, the Nationals trailing by a run. Mets manager Terry Collins countered with reliever Scott Rice, banking on Harper's well-documented struggles this season to hit lefties. Rice, though, fired three straight fastballs low and inside to fall behind in the count 3-0.
With the NL's hottest hitter, Jayson Werth, standing in the on-deck circle, a walk felt like the ideal outcome for Harper. Knorr, though, gave his 20-year-old slugger the green light, and Harper responded by fouling off a 3-0 fastball on the lower inside corner.
"I gave it to him as an option," Knorr said. "Lefty-on-lefty, it might be one of the best pitches he's gonna get right there. He missed it, he fouled it off."
Said Harper: "He threw me a fastball inside, and I thought I could've done something with it. Just missed it, fouled it back."
Harper then swung at Rice's 3-1 fastball and rapped a sharp grounder right to second baseman Daniel Murphy. The crowd of 35,008 let out a groan, and Harper slowed down a couple of steps out of the batter's box, assuming the inning was about to end.
But Murphy bobbled the ball, and though he recovered in plenty of time to make the throw to first, Harper's lack of hustle in that situation still didn't sit well with others.
"It takes guts also to run out the ones that you think are going to be outs," teammate Ian Desmond said. "He does it 95, 99, whatever it is, almost 100 percent of the time. I think this one might've just got pointed out because the guy made a bobble, or whatever. I mean, he's 20 years old and I think he's still dealing with some emotions of the game. It's hard to remember a lot of the time that he is 20. What most of us were doing at 20 wasn't this."
Though Harper won over the entire baseball world as a rookie with his nonstop energy and "run-until-they-tag-you" mantra, this wasn't the first time this season others noted less hustle than they've become accustomed to from him. And it may be getting to the point where something has to be done.
"It's hard for me to say," Knorr said. "I'm not 20 years old in the big leagues and all this stuff going on around me. Something that we've got to get to the bottom of and keep talking to him, because eventually we're just going to have to take him out of the game."
Harper downplayed the incident, saying: "I guess I'll learn from it."
The Nationals still trailed 3-2 at that point and went down quietly in the bottom of the ninth against LaTroy Hawkins, but the scenario might have been quite different had Zimmerman not attempted to make a near-impossible throw in the top of the eighth.
With Murphy on second base and one out, Andrew Brown hit a chopper down the third-base line. Zimmerman ranged way to his right to make the play and was moving toward foul territory when he tried to throw the ball against his momentum and get Brown at first base. The ball arrived late and low, and when Adam LaRoche couldn't make the scoop, Murphy burst around third base and scored a huge insurance run with ease.
"I'll throw that every time," Zimmerman said, defending his decision not to simply "eat" the ball and concede the base hit. "If Rochie fields it cleanly — I mean, he did everything right, it just took a funny hop — but that guy's out by 89 feet at home plate."
These, of course, are small things, and they may or not have made the difference in this game. A couple more hits by the Nationals off Dillon Gee (who improved to 4-1 with a 2.16 ERA against Washington this year) would have made both the Zimmerman and Harper plays moot.
But everything gets magnified when you're trying to claw your way back into a pennant race. The Nationals had already made up four games in 10 days on the Reds for the NL's final Wild Card berth. Cincinnati's loss in Colorado late Friday night kept the deficit at 6 1/2 games, but a Nationals victory would have trimmed that number down to 5 1/2.
Whether the Nationals look back on this game four weeks from now as a missed opportunity remains to be seen.
"I still think we're in a great spot," Knorr said. "We've been playing really good baseball lately, and these games are going to show up. It's all how you bounce back and play the next day. Can't expect to go out and win the last 30 games. Somebody's going to stop us one day. We've just got to pick it up and go after it again."