Nats could learn playoff lesson from ninth-inning meltdown

September loss to Brewers illustrates small margin for error

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Davey Johnson sat down and his expression said it before his first words could.

“Well, that one hurt,” the Washington Nationals manager said.

Johnson has seen a lot of baseball and knows sometimes there isn’t much of a difference between another step toward the National League East pennant and a tough loss. Just about 24 hours after ensuring they would be in the playoffs, the Nationals got a bitter taste of how teams can lose games in October that they’re supposed to win.

This was still September, though, and a 4-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers likely won’t keep the Nationals from eventually clinching the division title. But after a stellar start from Edwin Jackson and some key defensive plays, a ninth-inning meltdown showed that in the span of a few minutes an entire night’s work can fade away.

“That’s kind of how those situations go. They happen fast,” said closer Tyler Clippard, who gave up three runs in the ninth. “One mistake can hurt, and I’ve made a couple tonight. It was compounded because of that.”

Mistakes only followed a bunt single by the Brewers‘ Norichika Aoki, one of those plays that Gold Glove third baseman Ryan Zimmerman on many occasions would have made. He didn’t, and Johnson figured bad things were to come.

“The bunt was the key because the guy can run, he’s going to be on second base,” he said. “That was the whole inning, really. That changes [things]. Clipp’s rushing to keep them from stealing another bag, and he didn’t make good pitches.”

Aoki got to second on a passed ball and scored two batters later thanks to Ryan Braun’s single. Clippard and the Nationals had been clinging to a one-run lead and it felt like a preview of playoff baseball in Washington. The ending could have been an emotional save, but instead, after two more hits and a wild pitch, the clubhouse was eerily quiet.

“It [stinks], definitely. We don’t want to lose in the ninth,” center fielder Bryce Harper said. “There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s just something that happens. They got on a roll, they got a great top of the lineup and you can’t make mistakes to them.”

Silver linings were readily available, even after a difficult defeat.

The Atlanta Braves’ 6-2 loss in Philadelphia dropped the Nationals’ magic number to clinch the division to seven with 12 games to play. Washington still leads the NL East by 5 ½ games, so it would take a lot for the pennant to slip from the Nationals’ grasp.

On the field at Nationals Park, the biggest positive came in the form of Edwin Jackson’s stellar start. He went eight innings, allowed one run on six hits and efficiently mowed down the Brewers.

“It was a great outing,” Johnson said. “He had that kind of postseason demeanor about him today.”

With Stephen Strasburg shut down, Jackson will likely be the Nationals’ fourth starter when the postseason begins, and more performances like Friday’s will almost certainly give his team opportunities to win.

“He was lights out. EJ’s pretty unbelievable when he goes out there and shows his stuff,” Harper said. “He battled his tail off out there, threw a great eight innings and just has nothing to show for it.”

For a young team, it was a tough reminder of the thin margin for error this time of year.

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