CINCINNATI — Henry Rodriguez looked up at the sky and he found the source of his discontent: rain that had pounded the field at Great American Ball Park all day. He looked down at the mound, the chewed up clay that had been beaten to death by eight previous pitchers. He kicked the dirt that he felt was no longer securing his footing the way it normally would.
His teammates tried to calm him, tried to coax him through the final three outs of a game that would have given the Nationals a small boost when it seemed to be especially needed. They tried to avoid an outcome that is becoming all too familiar when Rodriguez gets rattled.
It didn’t work.
Seven hours and 21 minutes after they were supposed to have begun their series finale with the Reds, and six batters in to the ninth inning, Joey Votto was rounding the bases for the third time. Grand Slam. Walk-off. Gut-wrenching 9-6 loss for the Nationals.
“It’s very frustrating,” Rodriguez said, his eyes staring squarely at the ground as he sat in front of his locker inside the visitors’ clubhouse with catcher Jesus Flores translating for him. “[I think I] lost control thinking about the mound condition.”
The Nationals left Washington last week digesting the news that they’d be without right fielder Jayson Werth for the next few months, lost to a broken wrist. They dropped their second series of the season to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates earlier in the week and weathered infuriating offensive games.
They watched catcher Wilson Ramos hobble through the clubhouse on crutches Sunday morning, his season likely over after tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament. And they spent the first 3:36 after the scheduled first pitch on Sunday cooped up in the clubhouse as a massive storm system parked itself above Cincinnati.
But a win and a series sweep would have softened all of that, at least for a while.
Instead, as Rodriguez began the inning facing the No. 7 hitter in the Reds’ lineup, he imploded. He threw almost exclusively fastballs, basically unable to command anything else. He threw three straight balls to Ryan Hanigan, working his way back to a 3-2 count before surrendering a single. He got the Reds’ No. 8 and No. 9 hitters but walked Drew Stubbs.
It all, however, would have been irrelevant had Rodriguez buckled down and taken care of left fielder Chris Heisey — who entered the game hitting .212 and was 0-for-4 at that point. Rodriguez got up 0-2 and fell apart. He walked him. He loaded the bases. He brought Votto to the plate.
“He walked the guys he should have got out,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “You just can’t walk those hitters in front of him … That’s the last guy, I mean, you don’t want him up there. Ever.”
It would have been an unattractive situation even if Votto wasn’t stepping to the plate on a 3-for-4 day with two home runs and a double. It was unpalatable with that in mind.
“That’s just kind of a cross your fingers, there,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “It doesn’t matter who’s on the mound. You’ve got an MVP-type player. [Votto‘s] always capable of doing that.”
“We tried everything,” Flores said. “And he pretty much was on it all.”
The Reds estimated his grand slam ball traveled 418 feet, giving him a total of 1,228 feet in home runs on the day. As the ball sailed toward the batter’s eye in center field, Rodriguez hung his head, slumped his shoulders and trudged into the Nationals’ dugout.
It was his third blown save in the last 14 games, following a disturbing pattern that begins with Rodriguez’s command issues and devolves into chaos. Sunday it was the mound. Tuesday it was the lack of control of the curveball that allowed the Pirates’ hitters to cheat on the fastball.
“For me it’s more mental,” Flores said, noting the Nationals players and pitching coach Steve McCatty offered to have the grounds crew repair the mound but Rodriguez refused. “It seems like he puts too much pressure on himself and he wants to try to be too perfect in those situations. He just got in trouble by himself.”
There were other issues for the Nationals on Sunday. They rapped out 16 hits and only scored six runs. They left 14 runners on base, struggled with situational hitting and allowed the Reds to pull within a run when Jay Bruce’s two-run double sailed over the head and out of the sight of right fielder Bryce Harper.
But none seemed as perilous as Rodriguez’s ninth.
Closer Drew Storen’s return is not imminent as he works his way back from surgery to remove a bone chip in his right elbow. Right-hander Brad Lidge, too, is still a few weeks away. Rodriguez’s talents are tantalizing. He struck out the side in the ninth inning on Saturday, needing 10 pitches and throwing nine of them for strikes. But his inconsistency is maddening.
This, however, is the path the Nationals have been forced onto for the time being. Asked if he would go to Rodriguez in the Nationals’ next save situation, Johnson didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah,” he said, his sights likely already turning to the team’s upcoming seven-game homestand. “This is just a bump in the road.”