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On middle-inning decisions and blown leads

Sep 8, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT

AP

Does this sound familiar: The Nationals scratch and claw their way to take a 5-3 lead against a first-place club into the sixth or seventh inning, only to watch that lead fritter away and ultimately lose by a score of 8-5?

It should sound familiar, because it just happened Monday against the Mets.

And last Tuesday against the Cardinals.

And last Monday against the Cardinals.

Yes, the Nationals’ last three losses have all come in exactly the same fashion, with a 5-3 lead blown in the sixth inning or later, resulting in a final score of 8-5. In between all that, they’ve managed to win seven other games. So, really, had they just been able to hold those three late leads, they’d be riding a 10-game winning streak right and sit a mere 2 games behind the Mets in the NL East instead of the current 5.

They didn’t do that, of course, and so they find themselves in their current predicament. So, how did Monday’s middle-innings meltdown come about?

It began, really, in the bottom of the fifth, when manager Matt Williams faced his first real decision of the day: Pinch-hit for Max Scherzer with two on, two out and the Nats leading 5-4, or let the pitcher bat for himself?

Williams elected to leave Scherzer in, sacrificing a shot at expanding the lead in exchange for at least one more inning from his starter, who was at 89 pitches at the time.

“He’s our best option in the sixth inning,” the manager said afterward. “He’s got pitches left. We want to make sure we’re getting to the eighth. He’s at [89 pitches] and he’s got the lead. He’s our No. 1 for a reason.”

Scherzer did actually hit the ball hard, but right at second baseman Wilmer Flores, and so the fifth inning was over and the right-hander prepared to re-take the mound, trying to protect a 5-4 lead. Right away, Yoenis Cespedes doubled. And right away, the Nationals’ bullpen sprung into action … though that group wasn’t called upon to pitch until the seventh, after Scherzer had allowed the tying run via a balk and a sacrifice fly that scored Cespedes from third.

When the relief corps was finally summoned, it was all hands on deck. Williams began the seventh with Blake Treinen, who has been highly effective against right-handed hitters this season (.183 batting average against, .494 OPS against) but not so much against left-handed hitters (.351 batting average against, .914 OPS against).

Treinen gave up a leadoff single to Flores (a right-handed batter) and then barely threw him out at second base on Ruben Tejada’s attempted sacrifice bunt. And that was it for him. Enter Felipe Rivero to face the left-handed Curtis Granderson.

This, according to Williams, proved to be the crucial plate appearance of the inning. Rivero has been a revelation lately — he entered Monday having retired 13 consecutive batters over his last three outings — but he wound up walking Granderson to put runners on first and second with one out.

With David Wright stepping to the plate and the left-handed Daniel Murphy behind him, Williams could have stuck with Rivero, who has enjoyed success lately against both lefties and righties. But the Granderson walk changed everything, and so Williams found himself walking back to the mound again for another pitching change, this time bringing in right-hander Casey Janssen.

“If [Rivero] gets Granderson, we let him go through and get to [Murphy],” Williams said. “But since he walked him, a base hit there, they end up taking the lead.

Which is exactly what Wright did, though not against the left-handed Rivero but against the right-handed Janssen, who surrendered an RBI single that gave the Mets the lead for good.

For Janssen, who gave up seven total runs during last week’s losses to the Cardinals, was pitching on the third straight day, something he hadn’t previously done with the Nationals. He made no excuse for that, though.

“No, if you can’t get up for situations like this,” Janssen said, his voice trailing off. “It’s always fun to pitch in situations like this. Adrenaline takes care of everything.”

Janssen didn’t have much time to get the adrenaline flowing, because he was pulled after facing only one batter, giving way to veteran left-hander Matt Thornton to try and get out of the inning without any more damage. Thornton, though, gave up a sacrifice fly to left that scored Granderson and then an RBI double to Cespedes, one of the least-favorable matchups for the day.

“Looking to get a groundball from Murphy,” Thornton said of his plan-of-attack against the first batter he faced. “That’s why I threw him inside so many times, hoping to get a double play there with Cespedes hitting on-deck. At the same time, trying to make sure I get an out. I didn’t want him to do what he did do. But he had a hell of an at-bat. Fouled off some really really good pitches and got his job done.”

Thus, a 5-5 game turned into an 8-5 deficit, one the Nationals would never make up. Which has become the norm around here.

Fifteen times this season they have taken a lead into the sixth inning and wound up losing. Last season, it only happened eight times.

And lately, it feels like the same thing is happening over and over.

  1. jstamlos - Sep 8, 2015 at 6:45 AM

    Forget about last night’s game for a moment. Let’s forego one-game wildcard, division and NL championship series. Take the Nats as they are and transport them directly to Gm 1 of the World Series. How confident are you in them even winning one game, regardless of their AL opponent?

  2. nats1924 - Sep 8, 2015 at 6:52 AM

    Harper (& Papelbon) calling out the fans is annoying. If I was at the game yesterday you bet I’d be one of the first to leave once down 8-5. Who wants to watch this garbage?!

    I think Harper is a great player and would love to see him be a National for life. But, considering the $ he’ll be asking when approaching his free agency (not having a TV deal doesn help either — I told you all a few years ago this would come back to haunt us) and this year being is coming out year — Trade him to the Dodgers for a huge return.

    go 2016 Nats!

    • newenglandnat - Sep 8, 2015 at 7:30 AM

      The fans pay the bills, so in that context, any behavior is justified and it simply doesn’t sound right for a player to be critical. But does that make those that left good fans? Clearly not. You’re in a pennant race; it’s the biggest series of the season; you’re only down three runs; and it’s not even a late-night weekday game. Heck the game didn’t even sell out, which is frankly embarrassing. If “garbage” is a team that is within striking distance on Labor Day, I’d hate to see the fan support on a truly down year.

      • veejh - Sep 8, 2015 at 7:45 AM

        I think the fans just don’t believe the Nats can do it, that’s why they aren’t showing up. After that debacle yesterday, I’m sure those feelings have been justified.

      • ehay2k - Sep 8, 2015 at 7:47 AM

        The outfield seats get a ton of sun, and people, especially kids, need a break. Many times I have left my sun-scorched seat to find a shady (or air conditioned) spot from which to watch the last inning or two. There may also have been a lot of Labor Day visitors to DC that wanted to get home, and weren’t Nats fans, or even baseball fans, but just wanted to take in a game.

        But Bryce is choosing to focus on a negative – fans appearing to leave early when the Nats and MW choked the game away – when he really should be encouraging the fervor that the fans showed at the beginning of the game and when Ramos hit his slam. That may offer some insight into how he thinks and why he gets so upset with himself and others: Does he focus too much on the negative? Seems to be a self-destructive way to approach life, let alone a game that requires continued acceptance of failure, including his 0-4 performance yesterday.

        But calling out fans is not a way to build the fan base Harper seems to want.

  3. jfmii - Sep 8, 2015 at 7:01 AM

    Nationals still in it with wins today and tomorrow

    • Joe Seamhead - Sep 8, 2015 at 8:36 AM

      Exactly.

  4. ehay2k - Sep 8, 2015 at 7:30 AM

    So, Jannsen hadn’t ever pitched 3 days in a row for the Nats (he’s no spring chicken either) and MW put him in for one batter. Seems like that wasn’t well thought out. Does this also mean we can safely assume he won’t be available tonight?

    As for leaving Max in yesterday, what concerns me is it was pretty clear to everyone watching that he was struggling – 3 HR is not an indication of fastball command, nor are 2-glove misses, which even from the dugout, are easy to see. The Nats needed to try to bring those runs in go score in the bottom of the fifth a lot more than they needed to trot their strugglling ace out for another half inning. Saying he needed the runs would have also let MW off the hook as far as Max’ ego might be concerned.

    I believe that Williams deserves a lot of credit for sticking with players this season – Desi and Espi for example – as they worked through their struggles and ended up being major contributors. However, working through things over the course of a season, and working them out during a game, are entirely different things. Somehow, I just don’t get the sense yet that MW has figured that out.

  5. rmoore446 - Sep 8, 2015 at 7:31 AM

    Win the next two and we’ll be fine. Won’t be easy against their best pitchers but can be done. I thought the crowd was a good one and Mets fans were there but a decided minority. The massive “Wilson” chants were a good example. Wasn’t like the old days with the Phillies. I was surprised at the attendance figures as walking up am hour before the game some of the scalpers were buying tickets and some were both selling and buying. I expected a near sellout.

    Leaving Scherzer in rather than pinch hitting for him caused a lot of grumbling among Nats fans around me. He was barely hanging in there with several warning track shots in addition to the homers. The balk was the crowning touch of a bad start.

  6. raleighnat - Sep 8, 2015 at 7:33 AM

    Today really is must win. Got to win this series period. Jannsen seems like a standup guy but he does not need to appear again. Why anyone would go to him in a leverage situation is beyond me. He just doesn’t seem to have mlb stuff any more. Tough because the entire bullpen stunk.

  7. newenglandnat - Sep 8, 2015 at 7:46 AM

    I wouldn’t have left Scherzer in myself, but this one was not a clearly wrong decision. The middle relief has been so bad that you can’t blame Williams at this point for saying “I’ve got the middle of the Mets order coming up, let’s go with my nominal best starter to get three outs instead of my fifth best reliever.” I know Max was struggling, but it was not unreasonable to conclude that Max struggling still was better than middle relief. And, not that you can or should judge a decision by the result, but the middle relief did, in fact, stink.

    • veejh - Sep 8, 2015 at 7:55 AM

      Yeah, but the chance to bat in those 2 runs went away, with allowing Max to bat. 7-4 would have been nice at that moment.

      • newenglandnat - Sep 8, 2015 at 8:21 AM

        I get the compromise and I would have pinch hit too.

        But the reality is that you went from a 25% chance at two runs to a (probably) 8-9% chance. It’s just a question of what he thought the odds were Max gives up at least one in the sixth vs. someone else. The numbers may be different, but the difference between them may not be.

        I think the fact that 4-5-6 was coming up was a big factor, too. If it was 6-7-8, I think it’d be much more of a no-brainer to go to the pen there. Admittedly, I may be giving him too much credit, but he may be thinking that if he can get through the sixth more or less clean, he can use his worst relievers against the bottom of the order and then he’s got his two best bullpen guys (insert joke here based on recent performance) against the meat of their lineup.

    • kkpp3 - Sep 8, 2015 at 8:44 AM

      “Nominal” best starter says it all. It’s not like the ace of the staff was just having a few bad innings and would make the necessary tweaks. He has badly struggled since the All Star break. It’s another example of Williams’ inability to adjust and adapt when the evidence suggests “the plan” isn’t working. And Williams essentially decided to give up an out in the fifth to keep from going to his middle relief. But giving up an out like that is always a bad idea.

    • Section 222 - Sep 8, 2015 at 10:16 AM

      kkpp3 has it exactly right. Scherzer was not pitching well. That easily tipped the balance to PHing for him. I look at it this way — there were two variables here (1) the chance to break the game open with a base hit; and (2) the chances Scherzer would pitch a clean six or even go deeper. If even one pointed in the direction of keeping Scherzer in, I could understand the decision. If (1)(a) the bases were empty; (b) Scherzer could hit like Madison Bumgarner or (2)(a) Scherzer was at 70 pitches and could likely go two more innings; (b) Scherzer was pitching really well and there was no reason to think he couldn’t pitch a clean 6th. NONE of these possibilities existed.

      MW’s postgame presser comments suggest he believed that 2(b) was the case, but everyone in the park knew otherwise. He’s out of touch with what’s happening in the game. That’s not good for being a manager. “He’s our No. 1 for a reason” says it all. He’s clueless.

  8. JayB - Sep 8, 2015 at 7:52 AM

    Werth looks like he has never played out field…..you go back find the wall and then move in if needed….if he had done that the HR was just a fly ball that gets plucked from the top of the wall….really a routine play for a average outfielder….ball was in the air forever……Same problem with the dropped ball…..all day you say Mets outfielders turning and taking alternative routes to deal with the sun…out outfielders in their own home park looked like they had never played there. Werth is so done in the OF.

    Rizzo has to own and learn that just because you drafted them or you agree with your scouts that they could be MLB players does not mean they will be……how much more evidence does anyone need that about 10 BP arms we have tried this year are not MLB players?

    • Joe Seamhead - Sep 8, 2015 at 9:20 AM

      The guy is 6’4″ and leaped as high as he could for it. It was out of his reach. Maybe if he could of leaped an inch or two higher, or was 6’6.” Jayson Werth has looked like crap at times inn the outfield the past two years, but blaming him for that home run is a stretch.

  9. JayB - Sep 8, 2015 at 8:01 AM

    really interesting to see these two teams progressions…….Mets made moves that clearly helped them win…Kelly Johnson and Cespedes et all make them into a offensive force and David Wright came back and who knew did not need 100 ABs of .150 Avg to be ready to play……the BP moves the Mets made OR our Bats…..no idea which is responsible for no runs for the second half of the game but …..again Rizzo needs to own this and make moves based on what he has learned from this massive missed opportunity….Lerner’s are not going to let this stand….at minimum we are going to see major roster changes and coaching changes and I am hopping for new Manager and a new GM in charge of MLB roster which pushes RIzzo back to what he is good at…..scouting and drafting and advising a GM.

    • NatsLady - Sep 8, 2015 at 8:15 AM

      I’m going to say this again. David Wright is getting a few hits and some walks, but he’s had exactly one double and one homer in 11 games–and three GIDP. If you look at WPA (Win Probability Added) and RE (Run Expectancy), he is in negative territory, meaning his offense is costing his team runs.

      • JayB - Sep 8, 2015 at 8:33 AM

        and compare that to Werth and Rendon?

    • newenglandnat - Sep 8, 2015 at 8:47 AM

      OK. I’ll compare it to Werth and Rendon.

      Since coming back from the DL, Werth is a +.248 in WPA with an OPS of .739. In his last 15 games? OPS of nearly 1.000 and +.621.

      Since coming back from the DL, Rendon has not been as good: -.249 WPA. But in his last 15 games? OPS of .799 and .151 WPA.

      Obviously, that doesn’t include Ryan Zimmerman, who has basically been the best player in the NL since coming off the DL. Really. OPS of 1.024 and WPA of 1.435.

      Wright? -.521 WPA (that’s worse than Werth or Rendon since they came back).

    • newenglandnat - Sep 8, 2015 at 8:51 AM

      Obviously, both Werth and Rendon were bad — really bad — in their first 15 or so games back. That’s the same as Wright. And did it cost us some games? Almost assuredly, just as Wright has no doubt cost the Mets some. I’m not sure there’s anything you can do to mitigate that. You have to take the first fifteen in order to get to where Werth and Rendon are now. Maybe Wright will round into form for the Mets, too. We’ll see.

  10. Nats Fan Zee - Sep 8, 2015 at 8:19 AM

    A 12 year old (my son) turned to me and said “Dad, why don’t they pinch hit for him? He has nothing!” But the manager thinks that’s the move. What strikes me is that giving up 3 HR’s, 4 doubles in 6 innings of a “must win” game is acceptable performance? Then this parade from the BP to extend the lead followed by the right fielder chastising my family & I for leaving early (we did not) …. Makes me want to go buy more tickets this year!

    Having said that, my son asked me when are we going again on the way home. I am disappointed but he is 12 and hopeful so it’s all good!

    • Nats Fan Zee - Sep 8, 2015 at 8:33 AM

      And one more thing, Bryce’s performance thus year earns him the right to shoot his mouth off on occasion. Our “closer” who has made no difference to this club can shut up and go back to Philly anytime he likes. Papellbon was our big move at the trade deadline …. Compare please with the Mets moves and our respective performance since. He is the last guy that should be evaluating the fans in DC!

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/nationals-journal/wp/2015/09/05/jonathan-papelbon-says-nationals-fans-should-stand-up-because-its-playoff-baseball/

      BTW, broke my heart to see Clip in the orange and blue yesterday.

      Hay Pap, remember Brank Rickey:

      “Pirate general manager Branch Rickey, who reportedly told Kiner, “We finished eighth with you, we can finish eighth without you.”

      • kkpp3 - Sep 8, 2015 at 9:20 AM

        I don’t think a player’s performance ever “earns him” the right to mouth off. Some always will mouth off, but it’s just bush league.

        Harper seems to have forgotten he’s in the entertainment business. If the product you’re peddling begins to stink, the customers will head for the exits.

      • Section 222 - Sep 8, 2015 at 10:21 AM

        +1 to kkpp. Bryce was wrong to lash out at the fans yesterday. He knows nothing about what our lives are like. He also wasn’t sitting in the sun for three hours watching the Nats underperform.

        Pap was joking the other night. Having fun after a win and enjoying the moment. No way were his comments “mouthing off” like Bryce’s.

        He’s also done his job since he was acquired. Every single time. That’s more than you can say for Storen or anyone else in the bullpen. You can certainly argue that Rizzo should have done more at the deadline, but that’s not Pap’s fault.

    • Nats Fan Zee - Sep 8, 2015 at 8:34 AM

      I really hope I’m wrong but I think the Mets are about to blow out another arm …..

  11. Joe Seamhead - Sep 8, 2015 at 8:51 AM

    We’re heading down tonight and plan on being quite vocal in support of our team.

    As to Williams’ future as a Nats manager? I still think that the guy could develop into a decent manager, but I am not a big fan of the guy. I think that he is rather inflexible when it comes to his in game decisions, and his overall public personality is defined in one word: drab. I have always liked a lot of color in baseball managers.

  12. zmunchkin - Sep 8, 2015 at 8:57 AM

    Up until recently I have felt that MW was learning from his mistakes and did not agree with those who called for him to be fired/gone.

    But it is clear to me that he likely will never be a good in-game manager. All he’s done is switch from one checklist on how to manage a game to a slightly different one. He seems utterly incapable of taking in what is happening on the field and making gut decisions.

    It was clear as day yesterday that Scherzer was not effective even earlier in the game and he had little/nothing left. Not PHing for him in the 5th when he was already at 89 pitches was simply not a defensible position. And he had plenty of time to come to that realization due to the injury. You put Scherzer out there until the Mets pitcher is ready and then you sent out the PH.

    And don’t get me started on the idiocy of the 7th. He has simply gone from X is my 7th inning guy to a different checklist that mandates L-R/R-L matchups. Contrast that with the Rockies game where Storen gave up the HR to Gonzalez. It was clear as day that you bring in a lefty (Rivero who was ready) to pitch to him.

    So my silver lining in this season if they continue to lose like this is that maybe, just maybe Rizzo will decide he can’t give MW another year.

    • Joe Seamhead - Sep 8, 2015 at 9:16 AM

      A good post, and I can’t say with much conviction that I can disagree strongly with a thing you said, zmuchkin.

    • jd - Sep 8, 2015 at 9:27 AM

      Zmuchkin,

      I agree with you across the board except for one thing. I don’t think it was clear as day to take Scherzer out after 5 simply because anytime you ask the pen to give you 4 good innings with a minimal lead you are really asking a lot and it normally doesn’t end well and in fact the relievers in the 7th validated that point.

      In the 7th, you are right, it was a s*it show with 4 different relievers all failing one at a time, but the posters here and on Steve’s site have mostly all been begging for matchups all year. I think it’s nonsense especially when the other team’s lineup is set up L/R up and down the lineup. In truth though I am not confident that any combination of these pitchers would have done the job yesterday.

      To me MW (who I think is a terrible in game manager) didn’t lose the game yesterday, Scherzer and the bullpen did.

      I wouldn’t hold my breath about MW getting the boot, by all accounts he is rock solid with Rizzo who is rock solid with the owners. I continue to wonder why it is that every pitcher, regardless of previous pedigree seems to regress with the Nats, to my simple mind this does not speak well to the job the pitching coach is doing. I don’t understand why Mc.Catty never seems to get any heat. The team this year was built to win on superior pitching and adequate hitting. The hitting has been adequate, the pitching has been barely adequate.

      • jfmii - Sep 8, 2015 at 10:27 AM

        Yes BP failed yesterday–really shouldn’t blame MW for that. I would have left Rivero in to face Wright and Murphy, but I also knew the Nationals were in trouble either way when he walked Granderson. That was on Rivera, who otherwise has been good recently.

    • JamesFan - Sep 8, 2015 at 10:09 AM

      How about the lack of a plan against Cespedis? This guy has changed the Mets’ offense since he arrived and he goes 3-5 in a critical game. Why pitch to him? What’s the strategy to get him out? We don’t seem to have a clue.

  13. langleyclub - Sep 8, 2015 at 9:13 AM

    Thought that they should’ve pinch hit for Max, but in retrospect the bullpen gave up 3 runs when Max left the game the next inning. So, it appears the Nats would’ve lost anyway unless you are going to assume that whomever would’ve pinch hit was going to jack one out (doubtful).

    The Nats lost because Scherzer gave up 5 runs in 5+ innings and the Mets bullpen completely outpitched the Nats bullpen. Disappointing.

    FWIW, wonder if Max is hurt. He just is not the same pitcher he was over the first 3 months of the season. Love his grit and attitude, but when it’s all said and done Scherzer losing to the Mets when he had a 5-3 lead and to Johann Flande twice may be too much for this team to overcome.

    • jd - Sep 8, 2015 at 9:31 AM

      langley,

      FWIW, Ron Darling thinks that Scherzer’s arm slot is off and therefore he is not getting downward action on his ball. Could be arm fatigue. who knows?

    • kkpp3 - Sep 8, 2015 at 12:09 PM

      But letting Scherzer hit in the fifth gave up an opportunity for a pinch hitter to keep the line moving. You can’t know what would have happened the rest of the way if Williams pinch hit for Scherzer. We do know that Williams didn’t try it. Seems to me that when you have the chance to score, you should do what you can to score. You need to be thinking ahead, of course, but opportunities to score can be scarce and you shouldn’t let your projections of future innings obscure that. The scoring opportunity is real; the projection is hypothetical (if he can get us out of the sixth and maybe seventh, we’ll be OK). You need to grasp the opportunity. Instead Williams gave up a precious out and sat pat on five runs.

      • Reverendp - Sep 8, 2015 at 3:41 PM

        Good post kk

  14. Steve silock - Sep 8, 2015 at 9:25 AM

    I failed to say how disappointed I am that the Nats almost never come back in the 8th and 9th innings…they always blame it on tough relievers…I think our hitters should toughen up..and get a little heart…

    • JamesFan - Sep 8, 2015 at 10:10 AM

      Blaming their performance on fan support is a low point for the year.

  15. Guapo - Sep 8, 2015 at 9:27 AM

    I’m no defender of MW, but what’s he supposed to do in that spot? It’s not like our bullpen has been lights out. Both his options were bad. Either leave in an average starter, or bring in some average relievers.

    Teams in the MLB who get average pitching don’t make the playoffs. Elite staffs do. Our staff, despite the talent, has produced at an average level this year.

    McCan’ty must go.

    • natsjackinfl - Sep 8, 2015 at 10:12 AM

      The problem with Scherzer has been so obvious that it’s impossible to understand how McCatty hasn’t helped him correct the issue.

      Aside from his arm slot dropping a hair thereby negating his ability to stay on top and create downward sink, he has lost the ability to get his fastball down.

      I don’t know if he expects his arm action to create movement down and it’s not happening or he just can’t spot his pitches low in the zone. His off speed stuff (slider, change up ) get down but his fastball stays up and stays on the same plane practically screaming “CRUSH ME”!

  16. philipd763 - Sep 8, 2015 at 12:56 PM

    The manager is an idiot and the 6-7 inning relievers are a disaster! Who hired these clowns? I believe it was Mike Rizzo.

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