Tuesday, April 26, 2011 10:08 p.m.
Updated at 12:09 a.m.
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By Mark Zuckerman
Relief pitchers already have precious little margin for error when they enter a game. That margin shrinks to microscopic levels for left-handed specialists, who get to face only one batter on any given night, typically with the entire game on the line.
Doug Slaten has always taken pride in his ability to come into a game in a jam, face a tough left-handed hitter and get out of the jam without sustaining any damage.
"That's the No. 1 key to my job, probably," he said. "Coming in and getting guys out with guys on base."
If that's the best measure of a lefty reliever's success, Slaten isn't performing up to standards so far this season. And on Tuesday night, his inability to get a big out with the game on the line helped send the Nationals to a 6-4 loss to the Mets.
Summoned by manager Jim Riggleman to face New York catcher Josh Thole with one out, runners on first and second and the game tied in the top of the sixth, Slaten hung an 0-1 slider over the plate and watched as Thole dropped it down the left-field line for a two-run double. The Mets took the lead and never looked back.
Slaten did manage to get the next batter he faced, Jason Pridie, to pop out. But the Thole double caused enough damage on its own and was the latest example of Slaten's struggles.
Last year, the lefty quietly established himself as one of Riggleman's trusted relievers. Over the course of 49 appearances, he inherited 26 runners. Only four of them wound up scoring.
Contrast that to Slaten's numbers through his first 12 appearances this season. He's already allowed eight of 19 inherited runners to cross the plate.
"Right now, there's a few that have dropped in," he said. "I still have confidence going out there throwing pitches and throwing strikes. My luck will change a little bit."
Whether the Nationals continue to give the 31-year-old opportunities in these type of situations remains to be seen, though Riggleman offered up words of support following Tuesday's loss.
"Slate does a good job," the manager said. "Everybody gets in these little funks now and again. He's a quality left-hander that I have a lot of confidence in. It's just the way it's been going."
It's not as though the Nationals have a plethora of alternatives. The only other lefty in the bullpen is part-time closer Sean Burnett, who rarely pitches before the eighth inning and is used to get right-handed hitters out as much as left-handed hitters. The only lefty reliever currently at Class AAA Syracuse is Matt Chico, a former starter who boasts a 7.50 ERA in six appearances this season.
If anything, Riggleman's best options against left-handed hitters may be one of his right-handers. Tyler Clippard, in particular, has been effective this season, holding lefties to a .192 average.
On Tuesday night, Riggleman might have also considered leaving starter Jordan Zimmermann in to face Thole. Zimmermann wasn't in top form -- he allowed five runs and nine hits in 5 13 innings -- but he was sitting on only 73 pitches after allowing back-to-back singles to Jason Bay and Ike Davis.
"I gave him Davis," Riggleman said. "And once Davis got the hit, I felt like if we're going to get beat here in that part of the order, it's going to have to be with a left-handed pitcher."
Zimmermann, for his part, said he was hoping to stay in the game and get a chance to pitch his way out of the jam, though he accepted his manager's decision.
"The pitch count was low, and they weren't hitting me that hard," he said. "A broken bat there and a groundball that got through the hole. I don't know what the scouting report said, if Slaten does well against Thole. I'm not sure what the deal was."
Actually, Slaten had enjoyed previous success against Thole, retiring him on all three previous encounters and striking him out once.
The Nationals' pitching woes overshadowed what could have been an uplifting game, thanks in large part to Wilson Ramos' two homers and RBI single. The rookie catcher, who isn't even listed on this year's All-Star ballot, clubbed solo homers to left in the second and fourth innings and is now batting .378 with a hefty 1.018 OPS for the season.
But those hitting heroics went for naught on this night because the Nationals' starter was not his usual self and their left-handed specialist, unfortunately, was.Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at email@example.com and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.