Wednesday, April 26, 2011 10:48 p.m.
Updated at 12:46 a.m.
NATIONALS PAGE NATIONALS VIDEO
By Mark Zuckerman
Jim Riggleman wandered into the Nationals' clubhouse about 15 minutes after his team had completed a demoralizing, 6-3 loss to the Mets Wednesday night and saw at least a half-dozen players sitting at their lockers, heads down or staring off into space.
The manager made a point to walk past each guy, slap him on the back and offer one or two words of encouragement.
There wasn't much consoling after this unsightly loss, though, not after the Nationals allowed five late runs, blowing leads in both the eighth and ninth innings. Washington's third straight loss and sixth in seven games leaves this club in last place in the NL East only one week after it was threatening to challenge for the division lead.
Where to place the blame for this latest loss? Certainly, relievers Tyler Clippard (who served up a tying homer to Daniel Murphy in the eighth) and Sean Burnett (who gave up four runs in the ninth) played their part. The defense behind those guys, particularly behind Burnett in the ninth, wasn't exactly crisp.
And Riggleman himself had a hand in this one, making a few late-game decisions that backfired and perhaps left him feeling like he needed to console some of his players afterward.
Riggleman's biggest decision was to hand the ball to Burnett for the ninth, up 3-2 at the time, instead of Drew Storen. Though the right-handed Jason Bay was leading off the inning, the Mets had three left-handed hitters due up over the next four lineup slots. Riggleman called it "just a manager's decision," saying he had confidence in Burnett to "get it done there."
But how much confidence did Riggleman have in Burnett, considering he had Storen warming up alongside the left-hander before the ninth inning began?
Neither reliever -- they've been sharing closer duties so far this season -- knew for sure who would get the call until the last moment.
"You know what? I don't know. We go out there when the phone rings," Burnett said. "That's no excuse, though. You go out there, you've got to get three outs. I was just unable to get three outs tonight."
Burnett got into immediate trouble, though the Mets didn't exactly scorch the ball off him. Bay beat out a grounder up the middle that second baseman Danny Espinosa knocked down but couldn't completely corral. Ike Davis then sent a sinking liner to left that Roger Bernadina couldn't quite catch on the run.
"If either one of those balls are outs, then we're in pretty good shape," Riggleman said.
Instead, the Mets had two on with nobody out. Burnett then compounded the problem by hesitating on Willie Harris' popped-up sacrifice bunt attempt. The pitcher wound up sliding to his knees to field the ball, then couldn't make a last-ditch throw to first, leaving the bases loaded.
"I kind of froze on the pop-up," Burnett said. "I don't know. Just not my night. Just horsebleep all around."
Pinch-hitter Chin-lung Hu's sacrifice fly to right brought the first run home and tied the game 3-3. With the infield now playing in, Josh Thole bounced a ball up the middle. Shortstop Brian Bixler -- inserted the previous inning as a pinch-runner for Adam LaRoche, a curious move that made Alex Cora the Nationals' first baseman for the ninth inning -- couldn't pull the trigger on a throw to the plate and wound up settling for the out at first base.
The Mets, though, had taken a 4-3 lead. And they weren't done. After Riggleman had Jose Reyes intentionally walked, Burnett served up a two-run double to Murphy, making it 6-3 before Storen finally entered to record the inning's final out.
"Reyes, for me, he's just a dynamic player," Riggleman said. "He's a guy that, especially from the right side, I think he's particularly dangerous. And we had the left-hander Murphy coming up. So we chose that match-up."
There were any number of things that went wrong in that final inning, some of them unlucky breaks that might have swayed the outcome of the game. But this team isn't making its own breaks right now. It's finding ways to lose, much as it did in previous seasons.
The fear is that a tone of defeatism will start to permeate the clubhouse. There are a number of veterans with experience on winning teams on this roster, guys who should be able to prevent those kind of doubts from creeping into teammates' heads.
But at the end of a frustrating night at the ballpark, that clubhouse was mostly silent. The manager, wandering from player to player to offer a pat on the back and word of encouragement, was audible. So was general manager Mike Rizzo, who made a point to walk up to Burnett and share a few thoughts.
"Every loss is tough, but hey, you've got to bounce back in this game," third baseman Jerry Hairston said. "Game's over. Just got to move forward. Get ready for tomorrow."
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.