Reliable Craig Stammen finally falters in Nats’ loss to Baltimore

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Nationals reliever Craig Stammen took his warm up tosses in the bullpen and felt ready to extend his team’s game against the Baltimore Orioles, which was already into the 11th inning on Monday at Nationals Park.

So reliable for three years running now, but still anonymous because the spotlight only finds middle relievers when they fail, Stammen might as well have slipped on a banana peel as he ran through the open bullpen gate. It was one of those nights. His slider abandoned him with the heart of the Orioles‘ powerful lineup ready to hit. It was a losing hand.

Nine pitches and two home runs later an exciting, entertaining game was out of reach. Baltimore scored six times in the 11th inning, five of those runs charged to Stammen, in an eventual 8-2 loss.

“You’re trying to figure it out. You’re kind of hoping you find it at some point,” Stammen said. “[The slider] was actually really good in the bullpen. It was one of those driving range sliders I had today.”

His slight smile hid any frustration. It was a rare off night for a pitcher who entered the game with a 2.68 ERA. The Orioles hitters ballooned that to 3.65, a beating that will sting for a while. Stammen had a 2.34 ERA in 2012 and 2.76 last season. He’s a valuable member of one of the sport’s best bullpens and capable of handling multiple roles. But there’s not much a reliever can do when a critical pitch goes missing.

Stammen didn’t get a couple of close pitches called strikes by home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom. Forced into a full count, he went with a pitch down and away that he was sure slugger Chris Davis couldn’t hit out of the ballpark. But it was up a touch and that’s all it took. Davis, who hit 53 homers last season, sent the ball screaming just over the railing in right field.Teammate Nelson Cruz, who hit a two-run homer earlier in the game, was already on base. Suddenly Baltimore led 4-2 and thousands of orange-clad Orioles fans roared their approval as their team took round one of the Battle of the Beltways series.

They only grew louder and more emboldened when J.J. Hardy followed with a solo homer on an 0-2 pitch. Another single by Nick Hundley and a Nick Markakis double finished Stammen’s miserable night.

“It’s gonna happen to everybody,” Nats starter Stephen Strasburg said. “He’s got a great head on his shoulders. He’s gonna come in tomorrow and do his thing if he gets in. That’s all you really can do.”

The loss wasted a fine outing from Strasburg, who gave up just two runs on that Cruz homer in the fourth inning. He allowed four hits, struck out nine and walked one batter. That weighs on a middle reliever, too. The starter pitched well enough to win, Anthony Rendon tied the game with his own two-run homer in the sixth inning and Washington had a chance to win. True, the offense had its chances and didn’t come through. But Stammen was the one sitting at his locker afterward dutifully answering questions about what went wrong.

“Your game plan doesn’t really change [with Baltimore’s power]. You try to make the best pitches that you’re capable of making,” Stammen said. “I happened to not do that tonight and therefore gave up some runs. They do have a really good lineup and you need to make good pitches to get them out.”

Prior to Monday’s game, Stammen had thrown 11 innings and allowed just two runs and hardly a soul noticed. The entire month of May he gave up a single run in 14 2/3 innings, once even saving the bullpen during a loss with a four-inning, 35-pitch effort after starter Gio Gonzalez was battered for five runs early in a game against the New York Mets. It is Stammen’s lot in the game. Pitch well and watch others get the glory, fall short and only then does the scrutiny arrive.

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