In today's 5-4 loss to the San Diego Padres, the Washington Nationals failed physically when presented with opportunities on multiple occasions, but also made several mental mistakes that added to the frustration of watching an imminently winnable game slip away.
Manager Jim Riggleman insists his team is playing good, clean baseball. But when runners are making outs on the base paths and hitting into rally-killing double plays, it's becoming increasingly frustrating for Nationals fans to accept that idea, especially considering the Nats have lost seven out of nine and 12 of their last 16 games, and now sit at 22-30 for the season.
In those last 16 games, the Nats lost series to the Padres, Baltimore Orioles, and New York Mets, all in last or next-to-last place in their divisions, in addition to contenders Florida and Milwaukee.
Riggleman defended his club following the game. "You know, we've played good. I know that hitting is part of playing good also. We put 11 hits out there today. We had opportunities. But through this whole thing we've played good baseball. We've played clean, we've run the bases good."
Today, though, they did not run the bases particularly well. The Nationals only left six men on base, but hit into three double plays and had three runners gunned down on the base paths.
In the fifth, trailing 4-2, Roger Bernadina drove in Rick Ankiel with a double but was nailed trying to stretch the hit into a triple with one out. Riggleman explained, "Rule of thumb is you don't make the first or third out at third base... He made the second out there and that's the one you take the chance to get there on. So it was a good, aggressive play and they made a great relay."
The next inning, after Jayson Werth scored on a slow grounder to third with a terrific slide, Laynce Nix tried the same trick later in the inning. Nix was erased at home when Chase Headley made the play presented with another opportunity.
|Laynce Nix was one of three Nats runners thrown out on the base paths today. (C.Nichols/Nats News Network)|
Then, with Alex Cora batting with two on and two outs, Jerry Hairston was picked off at first base when a pitch momentarily got away from catcher Kyle Phillips. The lead runner, Michael Morse, broke for third so Hairston followed suit. When Morse saw the ball hit the home plate umpire in the leg, he retreated, essentially hanging Hairston out to dry.
Riggleman heard the boos as his club took their positions in the field. "Today, there was some frustration, I could hear from fans, about when we got picked off. But that was unavoidable. The ball gets away from the catcher and hits the umpire's shinguards and stays there. So when Mike [Morse] took off from second, Jerry took off and that was a fluky thing. It kinda reminded me that I don't remember that ever happening to us. We've played that good of baseball. We've not made base running mistakes and we've played good clean baseball. But hitting is part of playing good baseball too."
Riggleman maintains that the Nats trouble scoring is only a phase, and continues to believe that things will turn around. "I like the opportunities out there, and we had our opportunities. As we've said many times, if we keep putting them out there, sooner or later you're gotta drive 'em in. But it's tough this little stretch we're going through here and there's nothing to do but battle through it and get to the point where we do drive those runs in. I just hope we keep putting [the base runners] out there."
Even with the base-running errors, the Nats still had a prime opportunity in the eighth inning to take the lead in a tied game. Leading off, Werth (3-for-4, run, RBI) was fooled on a pitch and hit a check swing bouncer to the third base side. Reliever Luke Gregerson fielded the ball but threw it away down the right field line, allowing Werth to take second.
Riggleman let Laynce Nix hit away with one out instead of bunting him over to third. Unfortunately, the Nats most consistent hitter this season thus far bounced out to the pitcher, failing to either drive the runner in or move him over. Werth died at second after two fly ball outs.
Riggleman explained why he let Nix hit away. "You got a man on second with nobody out, your left handed hitter you feel is going to pull the ball and move him over without a bunt and at the same time, is a guy that might drive one in the gap for you. I had total confidence that Laynce would get a base hit, who knows maybe hit one out of the park or hit a ground ball to the right side, whatever happens. But he made a great effort, gave us a good at bat but hit it back to the pitcher.
When a team is struggling as bad as the Nats are to score runs, it seems like every little thing gets magnified. So Nix' inability to get Werth to third at least in that situation, in the bottom of the eighth inning of a tied game, really stood out.
Yunesky Maya made his first start of the season, and for the first few innings, he cruised through the Padres order. But three consecutive hits turned into a run in the fourth inning, and in the fifth, with two outs, he walked consecutive batters before allowing a two run-scoring single to first baseman Brad Hawpe, a lefty, with Doug Slaten warm and waiting in the pen.
After Hawpe's hit, Slaten was brought in to turn around switch-hitter Chase Headley, but the strategy backfired, as Headley lined a double to plate another run.
Asked what he thought of Maya's performance, Riggleman chose his words carefully. "He was okay. He was really good for a few innings then he got in trouble and he was trying to pitch out of it and made some good pitches, they fouled a bunch of balls off and he left one there for Hawpe."
"I really was getting Slaten ready for Headley, to turn Headley around. I was gonna let Maya try to get through the fifth. It's a 2-1 ballgame. You try to let your starter get five. We try to do that, we can't always do it. I tried to do it today and it didn't work for us."
|Yunesky Maya delivers in his 2011 big league debut. (C.Nichols/Nats News Network)|
Riggleman was circumspect if he though Maya had progressed from the end of last season "It's a little early to say yet. I liked what I saw last year. The numbers don't really indicate maybe the quality of pitcher he is but I think he's gonna be fine. I think he's a big league pitcher and we'll find what his niche is."
Is Maya going to be a pitcher that just can't get through the order a second time? "That happened today," Riggleman said. "We'll have to see if that's something we have to look for but it happened today.
THE GOOD: Jayson Werth was 3-for-4 with a run and an RBI. Tyler Clippard went two innings, striking out three.
THE BAD: Drew Storen's luck. He made a great pitch to Jorge Cantu in the ninth inning that Cantu was way late on, but managed to hit the right field chalk line for a double. Then, Ryan Ludwick hit a ball up the middle that Ian Desmond dove for and stopped, but couldn't get enough on the throw and with Cantu running hard with two outs, was able to beat the tag at home for the winning run.
THE UGLY: Matt Stairs lined out in his only appearance, with two on and two out in the eighth. He's now 3-for-33 this season, and 2-for-22 as a pinch-hitter.
THE STATS: 11 hits, two walks, three strikeouts. 3-for-13 with RISP, six LOB, three GIDP. No errors.
NEXT GAME: Monday, Memorial Day at 1:05 pm against the Philadelphia Phillies. Livan Hernandez (3-6, 3.71) faces Roy Halladay (6-3, 2.35).