The context of the Washington Nationals’ season has made it so that there are very few situations in which their confidence wavers.
They can find ways around Jordan Zimmermann, one of the league’s elite pitchers, unraveling in his worst start of the season. They can barrel through that hiccup and force the opposition to remember their 80 wins came from more than just a bunch of electric arms.
Their weaknesses, it seems, have become so few as they’ve evolved into one of the National League’s most powerful offenses, supporting what was already its best pitching staff. But Saturday evening, as lightning flashed in the distance and hot, muggy air settled over Nationals Park, what is perhaps their greatest one was exposed.
It was not their lack of power or poor pitching in a 10-9 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, in which the lead changed hands three different times, that ultimately became their undoing. But rather it was the runners, standing on first base, who knew they could take second if they want it.
In the top of the ninth inning, with the game tied at nine, it was Allen Craig – who’s had 271 opportunities in his career to steal second or third base and has only attempted it on eight occasions – timed Drew Storen’s nearly two-second delivery and took off. Moments later, when David Freese singled to left field and Craig scored the go-ahead run easily, it was that weakness that cost them the game.
“They do their homework on certain pitchers,” said Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche. “If you’ve got a pitcher who is typically real slow to the plate, they’re going to send guys that might not normally steal. They’ve got their watch going on every pitch. It gets up to a certain level, they’re sending guys, regardless of the situation. Odds are that they’ve got a chance to get in.”
The Nationals have allowed 97 stolen bases this season on 113 attempts. It’s a staff-wide weakness that has been well-documented and taken its toll in various games. Their catchers have been mostly absolved of the blame as the Nationals stress that their talented pitchers focus on the batter at hand and not wholly concern themselves with a runner. But the book is out.
“I’m concentrating on throwing good pitches and it’s something I need to work on,” said Storen, who was working more than an inning for this first time this season and had gotten the Nationals out of Sean Burnett’s jam in the eighth. “Just something I guess I need to make an adjustment for next time.”
“He’s got to quicken it up just a little bit,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “With that move, anybody can steal.”
The Cardinals knew that. And they exploited it.
And after the Nationals’ offense brought the 34,004 to their feet on at least five occasions – after they celebrated a sloppy first inning for the Cardinals that led to four runs, and LaRoche’s two-run homer in the second, and Danny Espinosa’s solo shot in the sixth, and perhaps most raucously Ryan Zimmerman’s sixth-inning single that brought home two runs via heads-up baserunning by Bryce Harper – they left disappointed.
“That had to be the longest nine-inning game I’ve ever been involved in,” said Johnson, who was forced to pull his ace right-hander after just 3 ⅔ innings when the Cardinals hung eight runs on Zimmermann. “It’s an awful good-hitting lineup. The pitching’s been kind of holding them down but they broke out. We’ll get them tomorrow.”
For two days the Nationals suffocated the Cardinals and their bats. After their four-run outburst in the first inning, the Nationals had outscored them 22-1. But Zimmermann struggled to get his pitches down in the zone. Johnson felt he was flying open with his delivery and couldn’t find a way to adjust. Zimmermann felt he was “pulling off” a little bit, not following through, which was leaving his pitches over the middle when they were meant to be down and away.
Both shot down the idea that fatigue played a part and neither placed blame on any lingering shoulder inflammation from a previous issue. But Zimmermann served up two home runs, two doubles, hit two batters and allowed a career-high eight earned runs. His ERA jumped from 2.63 to 3.01.
“I feel great,” Zimmermann said. “I feel strong. The velocity’s there and the pitches have got pretty good break. I’m just leaving them over the middle right now.