Sep 1, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT
You’re not going to win every game. Nobody does. But when you’ve got significant ground to make up and not a lot of time to do it, you can’t afford to give away games that were there for the taking.
Which is exactly what the Nationals have done too many times over the last month, culminating with Monday night’s latest gut-punch: an 8-5 loss to the Cardinals that included all kinds of failed execution at critical moments late.
When Ryan Zimmerman launched a 3-run homer off Kevin Siegrist in the top of the seventh, there was for a moment as much of a positive vibe surrounding this team as there had been in a really long time. Zimmerman’s blast — which gave him 28 RBI for the month, tying a club record also held by Bryce Harper (May 2015) and Ian Desmond (June 2013) — gave the Nationals a 5-3 lead. Against a Cardinals team they’ve long struggled to overcome. At Busch Stadium, where they hadn’t won since Game 1 of the 2012 NLDS.
This felt like a potential defining moment for the Nats. They had been playing better baseball, winning four consecutive series, and now they were in position to take the opener of perhaps their toughest road series of the season, against a Cardinals club that doesn’t seem to ever lose at home.
And then … well, you saw what happened. St. Louis scored five runs in the bottom of the seventh, all with two outs. And just when you thought the Nationals might have one last rally in them, with Bryce Harper at the plate representing the tying run in the ninth, Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon got caught in no-man’s land on the bases, giving away a precious out and whatever momentum they had briefly captured.
How in the world did they blow this one? Let us count the ways…
— Casey Janssen gave up four runs on four hits and a walk during that fateful bottom of the seventh, an inning that included a slow cover of first base on a grounder to the right side of the infield, not to mention a four-pitch walk to Matt Carpenter. In spite of all that, Janssen was just one pitch from getting out of the inning unscathed. And he threw a good pitch to Stephen Piscotty — a 2-2 curveball that was 12 inches off the ground — only to watch as the Cardinals rookie golfed it into shallow left field for an RBI single. And then he threw another good pitch to Jhonny Peralta — a 2-2 changeup down and away — only to watch as the Cardinals veteran poked it into right-center field for the game-tying single.
— Felipe Rivero let the go-ahead run (and then two more) score after replacing Janssen, the critical moment coming on a 2-1 fastball over the heart of the plate to Jason Heyward, who drilled it to deep left field, over Werth’s outstretched reach, for a double that put St. Louis back on top for good.
— Werth couldn’t make either of two plays in left field that would have ended the inning: Piscotty’s single in front of him, then Heyward’s double over his head. He was in “no doubles” defense on the Piscotty hit, playing too deep to get to the ball hit in front of him. Then he was in a standard position on Heyward’s hit, playing too shallow to get to the ball hit behind him.
— Werth and Rendon ran themselves into an out in the top of the ninth when the former took off for third base on Trevor Rosenthal’s pitch to the backstop, only to hit the brakes after a couple steps and retreat to second base. Unfortunately, Rendon (the trailing runner) didn’t see Werth stop until it was too late, leaving him in a rundown near first base. All of this came with Harper at the plate and a chance to tie the game with one swing.
— Matt Williams managed “by the book” at a time when something more aggressive might have been necessary. The decision to leave Janssen in wasn’t necessarily the real mistake: As stated above, the right-hander made two good pitches that should’ve gotten him out of the inning with no runs crossing the plate. Besides, had he pulled Janssen and brought in Drew Storen an inning earlier than usual to try to get Peralta, he would’ve lost the lefty-lefty matchup he sought for the subsequent Heyward at-bat. Williams’ bigger infraction might have been the decision to keep Werth in left field after his team took the lead. Werth’s declining defensive skills are no secret; everyone sees them. So why wasn’t Matt den Dekker inserted to take his spot? Would den Dekker have caught either the Piscotty or Heyward hits? We’ll never know. But he probably would’ve had a better chance.
Whatever you want to pin this loss on, whoever you want to blame for it, the simple fact is the Nationals didn’t execute when it really mattered late in this game. Just as they didn’t do during their two previous losses, at home against the Padres and the Marlins.
Both of those games, like this one, were there for the taking. But in a 1-run game against the Padres, Yunel Escobar swung away 3-0 with the bases loaded and grounded into a 5-4-3 double play that killed the Nats’ chances of a come-from-behind win. Then in another 1-run game against the Marlins, Max Scherzer lost to Adam Conley and the Nationals managed only one run out of a bases-loaded, nobody-out situation.
These are the kind of losses that stick with you, losses that could’ve turned into wins with only one hit in a big spot, one pitch with the game on the line, one strong defensive play when it was needed most.
No, you can’t win every game. But the Nationals have lost only three games in the last 10 days, and all three were games that were there for the taking, if only with a little better execution.
At this time of year, given the deficit they face, they simply couldn’t afford to lose games like that.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
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