A manager has a split-second to make an in-game decision, and he must consider all sorts of factors in that split-second afforded him before somebody has to step to the plate or throw a pitch.
As soon as Wilson Ramos singled to right-center in the bottom of the sixth Monday night, Matt Williams had a split-second to make his decision: Should he let Tanner Roark hit for himself with runners on the corners and two outs, the Nationals leading the Orioles by 1 run, or should he send a pinch-hitter to the plate and try to add to the lead?
The factors to consider: 1) Roark was cruising to that point, allowing two solo homers over six innings on a total of only 84 pitches, 2) The only left-handed bat on the Nationals' bench right now is Danny Espinosa, who has struggled mightily from that side of the plate, 3) What is the current state of the Nationals' bullpen?
In the end, Williams decided to stick with Roark, who made solid contact but grounded the ball right to Chris Davis, who stepped on first base to end the sixth. Moments later, Roark was getting the hook from Williams after allowing three hits in the top of the seventh, turning the Nationals' 3-2 lead into a 4-3 deficit that ultimately became a 7-3 loss.
"There’s thought," Williams said of pinch-hitting for Roark. "But it depends on who else we've got available. Bullpen's been pitching a lot lately, but we've got the lead. And he almost got a hit. That ball almost got down the line. But in that situation, he's [got a] low pitch count, he's pitching well he's been pitching well. So we want to take the lead into the following inning, as well. And we can't burn the pen, either."
That last point may be the key to the entire equation. The Nationals' bullpen, a strength through the season's first half, has fallen into a rut the last few weeks. And several members have been overworked to the point they've needed multiple days off.
Williams wouldn't go into any detail after Monday's game, but both Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano pitched an inning during Sunday's win over the Phillies, as well as an inning a piece Friday night. This would have been three appearances in four days for either late-inning reliever. Drew Storen, meanwhile, hasn't pitched in five days, not since his near-blown save Wednesday afternoon in Miami.
"That's for us to know," Williams said when asked if anyone wasn't available. "I'm not gonna go there now. But the bullpen's been pitching a lot."
Whatever the case, the Nationals collectively couldn't hold their slim lead at a crucial point in Monday night's game. Roark opened the seventh by allowing back-to-back doubles to J.J. Hardy and Ryan Flaherty, tying the game at 3. Pinch-hitter Delmon Young then singled up the middle to score Flaherty, give Baltimore the lead for good and knock Roark from the game.
"The ball was up, elevated, wasn't hitting my spots," Roark said. "Like I've told you guys many times before: If the ball is up and I'm not hitting my spots, the ball is going to be hit hard. That's what happened."
Once Roark departed, left-hander Ross Detwiler was given an opportunity to face a left-handed hitter: Nick Markakis, who delivered another single to left field, bringing Williams back out of the dugout to make another change.
Enter Craig Stammen, who proceeded to give up six hits to the eight batters he faced, bailed out only by a hard smash to third that Anthony Rendon and Asdrubal Cabrera impressively turned into a 5-4-3 double play.
"Whenever you go into the game, you're trying to keep the game close, or try to keep the lead," said Stammen, who has allowed 11 hits (all singles) over his last two appearances. "That didn't happen today, so it's disappointing."
It's been a disappointing stretch for the Nationals' bullpen, which has now allowed 18 runs over its last 20 2/3 innings. The top three relievers have pitched well but have been used an awful lot. The other four members of the unit haven't consistently pitched well enough to be trusted in key spots.
"I don't think we're wearing down," Stammen said. "We've proven, I think all of us, that we can withstand major-league seasons and that we've all pitched well in the season. Even though this is a little lull, maybe the averages are just evening up a little bit and we'll get back on track here shortly."