Nats effort good but not good enough
With the clock ticking down on their 2013 season, the Washington Nationals have put themselves in an unfortunate position where every little mistake and miscue in a nail-biting defeat becomes something much larger than it really is.
In the Nats’ 5-4 loss to the Phillies, the players harped back on several minor moments in what amounted to a 3 ½ hour battle of a game.
One pitch by Gio Gonzalez did him in, he said. One baserunning mistake by Ian Desmond was, in his eyes, the biggest of his major league career. And one questionable called strike three ripped the heart out of a club on the cusp of a comeback.
But for the Nationals, their defeat on Saturday night was rooted in a variety of reasons. The team that entered the game having won seven straight reverted back to the mental errors that put them in this bind. They squandered chances with runners in scoring position, like they have for much of the year, and saw their bullpen fail to stop the bleeding, like it has for much of the year.
It was just one game, loss No. 70, but with the Cincinnati Reds winning on Saturday, they now stand 5 ½ games out of the final NL Wild Card spot. 14 games remain and they can’t afford the little mistakes, much less many of them.
“I still thought we had a chance to come back on em,” Davey Johnson said. “We had our opportunities, we just didn’t capitalize.”
Gio Gonzalez gave the Nationals four scoreless innings before unraveling in the fifth, coughing up four runs on two big hits to the Phillies. John Mayberry got them started with a sole home run to tie the game at one, and Carlos Ruiz hit a two-out double with the bases loaded over Jayson Werth’s head in right field to score the other three.
Johnson thought Gonzalez lost his command in that inning, as he also issued a walk to Chase Utley and allowed a hit to pitcher Cole Hamels, but Gio looked back at the one 92 mile per hour fastball to Ruiz as the only big mistake.
“I was one pitch away from getting out of the inning. I don't think I lost it too much,” Gonzalez said. “Fastball away and he just put it right there on the spot. It hangs in there a little bit longer, [Werth] gets an out.”
Gonzalez was battling a Phillies team that was officially eliminated from the postseason earlier in the day with the Reds’ win. They’ve been out of it for quite some time and came to the park on Saturday with no pressure. All they had to play for was spoiling the Nats’ hopes at an eighth consecutive win.
They had also faced Gonzalez three times already this season, a factor Gio noted after the game.
“It is tough facing a lineup that you've faced the whole year, especially when they've seen everything you have from the length of your hair to the laces of your shoes,” he said.
“They know everything. After a while, seeing these guys 4-5 times, they're going to start realizing all I've got.”
The Desmond mistake on the basepaths came in the bottom of the third, as the Nats had two runners in scoring position with one out and failed to capitalize.
Desmond was at second with Werth at third when Bryce Harper hit a hard groundball right to the glove side of Jimmy Rollins. The Phillies’ shortstop noticed Desmond had taken a generous lead off second and caught him hesitating his next move. Rollins was able to tag Desmond for the second out.
“I made a pretty big mistake running on that ball to third -- to short, ran to third -- just kind of flipped the momentum,” Desmond said.
“I’ve made a lot of errors in the big leagues, but that was probably the worst one. That was a mental error, I wasn’t paying attention to the signs. The game will get you.”
The called strike three came in the seventh inning, after the Nats had scored three runs to cut the lead to one and were searching for more. Wilson Ramos was at the plate facing Cesar Jimenez with Harper on third.
Ramos went down early in the count, taking strike one and then fouling off the next two pitches. He watched a curveball hit the dirt on the fourth pitch and then fouled off two more.
On the seventh pitch of the at-bat Jimenez dropped an 80 mile per hour curve inside, about waist high for Ramos. But it landed inches from the plate and Ramos took it as an expected ball.
Home plate umpire Jim Joyce saw it differently and gave him the third strike, a call he even admitted to Johnson afterwards was wrong.
“He knew he missed it,” Johnson said. “But that’s part of baseball.”
The Nationals staged another comeback attempt in the ninth inning after Ryan Zimmerman hit a leadoff double off Jonathan Papelbon, but they failed to bring home the would-be tying run. The Nationals fell in heartbreaking fashion and now risk losing the momentum they have built over the previous month.
But in losing to the Phillies, and after zeroing in on several little mistakes made along the way, the Nationals had a genuine sense of confidence they are still in it. Perhaps it’s rooted in their recent stretch, or their near comeback from down four runs, but many Nats players weren’t down on themselves at all.
Just like the Phillies who are playing with nothing to lose, the Nats feel they have already been counted out and anything they accomplish now is simply a bonus.
“We’re still fine. We just gotta win the games,” Johnson said. “Just gotta keep winning them. We gotta win tomorrow and win the next day and on down the road. Send a message to Atlanta when they come in.”
“We’re playing with house money,” Desmond said. “Everyone kind of wrote us off, and we’re fighting our way back in. Just keep on playing and what will be will be.”