NEW YORK — The Washington Nationals learned early Monday afternoon that their closer, the man who’d saved 43 games for them in 2011, was going to spend his Tuesday visiting Dr. James Andrews and getting a second opinion on his tender right elbow.
That news was the backdrop for the ninth inning Monday night as the Nationals took a tie game against the New York Mets into the bottom of the ninth and then watched it slip away as their fundamentals failed them.
From the inability to produce after a leadoff walk in the top half, to a wild throw on an easily-handled bunt in the bottom half, the Nationals’ 4-3 loss was rife with examples of mistakes that can’t be made by a winning team.
“That,” manager Davey Johnson said, “was a tough one.”
Perhaps even if he were able to pitch, Drew Storen never would have entered Monday night’s game anyway, given that the Nationals lost the lead five innings earlier on a two-run homer by Mets‘ rookie center fielder Kirk Nieuwnehuis. Regardless, on the mound instead was one of the main candidates to fill his role, Henry Rodriguez, and he was being asked to get four outs.
He got the first, saving reliever Tom Gorzelanny from allowing a two-out double to ruin his 2⅔-innings of scoreless relief. But he walked Mike Baxter to open the ninth, and the inning devolved from there.
“Nobody wants to go out for the ninth and walk the first guy,” Rodriguez said, in his first extended interview conducted in English. “I feel really bad about myself.”
Rodriguez and veteran Brad Lidge will share the closing opportunities for the Nationals in Storen’s stead, the team’s bullpen depth a comforting fact as their closer looks at an uncertain immediate future. “More than capable,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman called them, and they had been just that in the Nationals’ first two games. Lidge and Rodriguez each picked up one of the Nationals’ first two save opportunities.
But Monday night, it was difficult not to view the Nationals’ loss through the prism of the day’s earlier news. The walk began an undoing of sorts for Rodriguez, and set the stage for a sacrifice bunt by Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada — a bunt Rodriguez would field cleanly, turn to second base and see the umpire blocking shortstop Ian Desmond, before firing sidearm to first base and watching his throw crow-hop past the bag.
“I’m strong,” Rodriguez said. “So sometimes I throw sidearm and the ball moves.”
If not for an alert play by Danny Espinosa, who’d been covering first, to regroup after taking Tejada’s elbow to the head and zip a strike to third base, the game would have ended sooner. As it was, Daniel Murphy saw just one pitch from Rodriguez before he got inside a 96-mph fastball on his hands and looped it into right field to score the game-winning run.
“I’m sure Henry is the maddest person in here,” Zimmerman said. “He’s going to be a person that helps this team out a lot and wins a lot of games for us. It happens. Things like that happen. Henry is going to win us a lot more games with his stuff, and his pitching than he is going to lose us games like that. We’re going to learn from it and shake it off.”
And the manager, while reaffirming his faith in his uber-talented, hard-throwing right-hander, wasn’t just referring to the final frame.
It was a botched sacrifice bunt in the top of the ninth by Desmond, the first time in his recent memory he’d been unsuccessful in such a pursuit, and a 2-for-9 team mark with runners in scoring position. It was the nine runners left on-base and the 10 hits in the game’s first six innings that produced just three runs and failed to run Mets starter Mike Pelfrey from the game with any kind of a knockout punch.