ATLANTA — As the Braves mobbed B.J. Upton in the middle of the diamond at Turner Field late Saturday night, the beleaguered center fielder having just delivered the base hit that dealt the Nationals a maddening 2-1 loss in 10 innings, it was easy to point to the man on the mound as the one most responsible for the outcome.
And certainly Henry Rodriguez played a major role. He displayed zero command of the strike zone, throwing 10 of his 15 pitches for balls. He walked two of the first three batters he faced, the other giving himself up on a failed sacrifice bunt attempt. He paid zero attention a runner on first base, letting him steal second without so much as a glance. And he gave up the game-winning hit to Upton, sending a crowd of 46,910 into pandemonium.
But it's also accurate to point out that Rodriguez's services never would have been needed in this game had the Nationals merely managed to bring home a runner from third with nobody out in the top of the ninth, a golden opportunity against the formidable Craig Kimbrel completely squandered by three members of their lineup.
"We had him in a jam," manager Davey Johnson said. "All we had to do was put the ball in play, a little sac fly. It's frustrating."<!-- more -->
Frustration abounded inside the Nationals clubhouse after this one. Despite losing their two biggest stars (Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper) to injury in the previous 24 hours, they were 90 feet from pulling off a second straight victory over Atlanta, one that would have trimmed their deficit in the NL East to 3 1/2 games.
They got a brilliant pitching performance from Gio Gonzalez: seven innings of one-run, three-hit ball to match Tim Hudson pitch-for-pitch. They got some gutsy relief work from Drew Storen and Fernando Abad to get this game into extra innings.
But when they needed to execute with the game on the line — at the plate and on the mound — they came up woefully short, and in the process wasted an opportunity to build some momentum against the division rival they've been chasing all season.
"That's baseball," Gonzalez said. "Gotta turn the page and move forward. We're not going to sit here and complain about what happened. That's a good-hitting team, a good ballclub. You've got to give them their credit too. Our job is to turn the page."
There would have been no need to turn the page had the Nationals pushed across the go-ahead run in the ninth. Facing the formidable Kimbrel in a non-save situation, Ryan Zimmerman led off the inning with a broken-bat single to center, then advanced to third on Adam LaRoche's well-struck double to right-center.
With runners on second and third and nobody out, all the Nationals needed was for either Ian Desmond or Roger Bernadina to get the ball out of the infield. Neither did. Desmond, after fouling off a slider he felt he should have put into play, struck out looking at a fastball on the outside corner. Bernadina then tapped a grounder to third, Chris Johnson throwing out Zimmerman at the plate for the inning's second out.
"Desi got a slider, inside half [of the plate], and he tried to go the other way and jammed himself," Davey Johnson said. "Then he took a fastball away. But Bernie took one right down the middle. They're just not doing it. It's tough."
Both Desmond and Bernadina insisted they weren't going to change their regular hitting approach in that situation.
"No, against a guy like that, you've got to stick to your plan," Desmond said. "I got a good pitch to hit, I just fouled it off. And then he painted one at high 90s or whatever it was on the black. ... He's an unbelievable pitcher, and you don't get the success he's had by just luck. So just tip your cap."
Said Bernadina: "You approach it the same that you've been doing."
The Nationals still had one more chance, with Danny Espinosa at the plate and two outs, but the struggling second baseman skied the first pitch he saw from Kimbrel to left field to end the inning.
So the game continued, ultimately moving to the bottom of the 10th. Having already used Storen and Abad, and not having the services of either Tyler Clippard or Craig Stammen after extensive use Friday night, Johnson had four remaining relievers at his disposal.
He wasn't going to use closer Rafael Soriano, who would be needed in case the Nationals took the lead and found themselves in a save situation. He wasn't going to use the just-promoted Erik Davis, not wanting the rookie to experience his MLB debut in that spot. And he wasn't going to use long man Zach Duke until he had exhausted all other options, knowing Duke would have to keep pitching until the game ended regardless.
So Rodriguez, whose penchant for wilting under the pressure of close ballgames is well-known, was the choice.
"He's been doing fairly good," Johnson said. "If not him, then I'm going with Davis, and then I've got to go to my long man. I've got to stay off Clip, 30 pitches last night. There's not a lot of choices."
It was immediately obvious Rodriguez was not in form. Despite firing four straight fastballs to Evan Gattis that all registered either 101 or 102 mph, not one was close to the strike zone.
The Braves then inexplicably gave up an out, with Ramiro Pena popping up a sacrifice bunt attempt, but it didn't matter because they merely needed to have Jordan Schafer steal second base off Rodriguez. Opposing basestealers are 9-for-9 against the right-hander this season, 38-for-40 over his career.
"When a man is on base, he focuses to the hitter and doesn't worry about the runner," Rodriguez said through interpreter Abad. "Today, the situation, tie game, he's worried about the hitter and he wanted to do everything perfect."
The Nationals have tried to get Rodriguez to work on holding runners, but they appear to have given up.
"He can't do it," Johnson said. "It's one thing holding the guy on, but not throwing strikes. You can't walk them. He didn't even come close on the first guy."
Rodriguez also walked Dan Uggla, setting the stage for Upton to deliver his game-winning single, admittedly on a decent pitch (101 mph at the knees).
"It was right there where I want it," Rodriguez said. "He's lucky. He got me."
A frustrating end to a frustrating night of baseball.
"We had the opportunities," Johnson said. "We had the right guys out there. We just didn't get it done. We've got to get it done. We'll get it going."