The silence that presided over the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse late Friday night was the kind they haven’t spent too much time experiencing in the last year or so. There have been too many happy moments. Too many milestones. Too much to celebrate.
But it wasn’t unfamiliar, either. A ninth-inning lead that slipped away. An offensive outburst came early but hibernated late. A defensive miscue at a pivotal time.
The Washington Nationals’ 6-4 loss to the Atlanta Braves Friday night, in the scheme of the young season, could easily be one they move on from and forget.
By the time the final out was made, Ramiro Pena’s two-run homer off Craig Stammen in the 10th inning the final blow to the Nationals’ hopes, there were just 15 hours until they’d be right back in the same spot for the next game of the series on Saturday.
But as the chill of an April evening in the District hung over them, there was no escaping the facts.
Against what many expect to be their prime divisional competition, the Nationals held a three run lead when the eighth inning began. They had a two-run advantage when the ninth started.
They had neither when it ended.
“I think we definitely need to learn from our mistakes,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. The Nationals’ longest-tenured member played in his 1,000th career game on Friday night, before which manager Davey Johnson referred to him as the rock upon so much of the Nationals’ success was built.
When Drew Storen, asked to get a four-out save on a night when Johnson was trying to avoid using closer Rafael Soriano, got Justin Upton to hit a bases loaded two-out chopper down the third base line, the Nationals might’ve had their final out.
But Zimmerman opted to try to get that out at second base. As Danny Espinosa raced to cover the bag, he and Jason Heyward slid in almost in unison, and Zimmerman’s throw bounced into right field.
The Nationals’ lead, chipped away at by the Braves once left-hander Ross Detwiler exited after seven superb innings of work, was gone.
“It’s the same thing that kind of got us last year, and why we didn’t maybe move on,” Zimmerman said. “Because we couldn’t close games out both pitching and defense-wise. We need to get better at that and learn from our mistakes.
“This bullpen is really good, and they’ve been good for a long time. Just like (it does with) hitters, the league adjusts to pitchers. They’re going to have to look, just like we do, go back and see what the hitters are doing to them now. And now it’s their turn to adjust, just like we have to do.”
In hindsight, Zimmerman admitted, perhaps the best play was to hold on to the ball. The Nationals would’ve still held a one-run lead and maybe Storen beats rookie Evan Gattis for the final out. Zimmerman felt the possibility of getting Upton at first was “out of the question,” given how deep in the hole he had to go to field the ball. Johnson said second base was the correct play.
“It’s really tough as a competitor to just catch the ball and throw it back to Drew and just have the bases loaded,” Zimmerman said. “I thought if I made a little better throw that we could get the guy at second. I’m trying to end the game, and that’s what I’m supposed to do.”
“It’s tough,” Storen said of the play, which marred his first save opportunity of the season. “But it’s part of baseball and that’s what makes baseball what it is, especially late in the game and especially against a good team. Things are going to happen.”
Focusing on the one play as the sole reason why the Nationals were not celebrating a series-opening victory, though, would be overlooking other issues. Their offense, robust in the early goings against Julio Teheran and working him for 42 pitches in less than two innings, mustered two hits after the second. The patience that served them so well as they rapped out six hits, including Bryce Harper’s fifth home run of the season, all but disappeared.
But they perhaps could’ve survived all of that were it not for the failures of the bullpen. The Nationals’ bullpen combined for five walks in three innings. Tyler Clippard, who was summoned for the eighth despite Detwiler sitting at just 90 pitches when the seventh ended, was responsible for three of them. And they all came with two outs.
“We gave them too many opportunities,” Johnson said. “Can’t do that. Good-hitting ballclub… We just didn’t make the pitches. We just didn’t attack the hitters. We just kind of gave them momentum.”
Ten games into the season, the Nationals’ bullpen has looked little like the strength it was perceived to be at the outset.
Their collective ERA sat at 6.24 as Friday inched toward Saturday. They’d blown two saves, and made a handful of others interesting. They’ve walked fourteen batters in 32 2/3 innings of work.
“We need to do better,” Clippard said. “Ross pitched a (heck) of a game. It hurts. It hurts, obviously, for the club to get the loss, but it hurts for him.
“A bullpen, collectively, to have your starter do what he did and not get the win for him is very, very disappointing for us as a group and I know for me, too.”
When it was over, in the mostly empty, mostly quiet clubhouse, they took solace in tomorrow.
“It (stinks),” Detwiler said after allowing just one run off four hits and two walks in seven innings. “But we get to go out there and play them again tomorrow and then again the next day. We shoot to win two out of three now.”