ATLANTA – Let’s keep things in perspective a little when looking at last night’s 6-5 Nationals’ loss to the Braves in the 10th inning of a game they once led 5-1 and seemed well on their way to winning.
First, the way the Nationals began the road trip, it’s pretty amazing they were in position to clinch a winning record on the three-city jaunt at all. They were completely and utterly dominated in a three-game series against the Phillies getting swept easily by the likes of Cole Hamels, Vance Worley, Roy Halladay and, of course, Raul Ibanez so it’s impressive no matter how you look at it that they came back to take four of six from Florida and Atlanta.
Second, it’s important not to misplace the blame for Thursday night’s loss. Sure technically, Sean Burnett surrendered the game-tying grand slam. Technically, Jordan Zimmermann walked Freddie Freeman and gave up a single to Alex Gonzalez to force himself from the game in the seventh and technically, Doug Slaten was on the hook for surrendering the game-winning RBI-single to Brian McCann. The decision to put in each reliever and when, of course, falls to Nationals manager Jim Riggleman.
But how the Nationals got into a situation where they needed their left-handed specialist to throw a career-high 2 1/3 innings is where things fell apart.
The Nationals have seven guys in their bullpen. Todd Coffey and Tyler Clippard were off limits, unavailable, Riggleman said after the game. Drew Storen was being held off until the ninth inning or, after the game was tied, for if and when they had a lead and that left Burnett, who’s been struggling of late, and Slaten, who had yet to face more than four batters in an appearance all year.
Except it didn’t. There were two more guys in the Nationals bullpen who weren’t even brought up in the conversation as relievers Nationals manager Jim Riggleman would have gone to in a tie game in late or extra innings: Henry Rodriguez and Brian Broderick.
Both are here for a reason but it’s mostly the future. Broderick, a Rule 5 pick, profiles as a future starter and Rodriguez, who is out of options, throws 100, which speaks for itself. Broderick and Rodriguez both last pitched Sunday, in a Marlins blowout. Rodriguez’s wildness makes him somewhat untouchable in a tied, extra-innings situation, and Broderick’s been touch and go. Both have been lightly used.
But with two guys in the bullpen that were clearly not even in the conversation to be used, the Nationals were operating with a five-man bullpen. Take out Coffey and Clippard and you’re left with three. Obviously there’s nothing the Nationals can do about those two right-handers being unavailable, especially one night after another extra-inning game, but there has to be some blame placed on general manager Mike Rizzo and his construction of a roster that allowed the Nationals to be stuck operating in that situation in the first place.
I’m not implying that the Nationals would have been better off bringing either of them in over Burnett, particularly, or even Slaten, who flirted with danger but did his job well for two innings. But it’s important not to overlook the fact that with their two most-trusted right-handed relievers outside of Storen unavailable, Burnett was called in to face two straight right-handers (who are hitting him at a .387 average this year), and Slaten as well faced as many right-handers as left-handers.
I’m sure most Nationals fans would agree that they’d have felt a lot better about the team’s chances last night if the Nationals happened to have Cole Kimball and Collin Balester available out of the bullpen last night instead of riding a bus with Triple-A Syracuse.
After the game last night, a lot of the comments coming my way on twitter seemed to indicate fans were upset with Riggleman for his use of the bullpen, which he operated with one eye on the fact that the Nationals have another game tonight and wearing out Clippard, Coffey and Storen would be both dangerous and shortsighted. The larger issue at hand is the fact that they were forced to consider it at all.