- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2012

Davey Johnson sat in front of an oversized red microphone late Friday night and looked as defeated as he has since he pulled a Curly ‘W’ windbreaker over his 69-year-old frame for the first time 13 months ago.

In the 4 1/2 hours that had preceded this moment, Johnson watched the his first-place Washington Nationals build a nine-run lead and give every single one back in a crushing 11-10 loss to the Atlanta Braves in 11 innings at Nationals Park. He’d watched as the only aspect of the game he views as truly his to manage turned into a complete and utter meltdown.

He watched as five relievers combined to allow seven runs in 5 2/3 innings to blow the largest lead in franchise history, and as his team suffered its most crushing loss of the season.

“I feel bad,” Johnson said. “That was arguably the worst game I’ve ever managed in my life.

“I’ve never lost a nine-run lead when it was my part of the game to handle the pitching,” he added. “It’ll be hard for me to sleep.”

The mistakes that Johnson felt he’d made were plentiful, though he didn’t want to get into any specifics. “I don’t even want to go there,” he said on two occasions. “I’ve got to live with it.”

But it wasn’t too difficult to figure out what Johnson was lamenting. Where to begin was a better question. Should it be with Stephen Strasburg, who Johnson felt was nibbling and not attacking hitters the way he’s capable, leading to a high pitch count (103 in 5 1/3 innings) and a miserable sixth in which the ace allowed four runs and hits to four of the five batters he was allowed to face? With Tyler Clippard, who blew his second save this week and has now allowed seven earned runs in his last three innings of work? The list could go on.

He took issue only with himself, really, and the decisions that led to what transpired.

With a doubleheader looming on Saturday and 10 games in the next nine days, Michael Gonzalez threw 30 pitches and 1 2/3 innings after relieving Strasburg in the sixth. Drew Storen, pitching on back-to-back days fresh off his disabled list stint from elbow surgery, was then summoned for the seventh inning. Eight pitches, two batters and no outs later, Johnson then went to Sean Burnett. Burnett, dealing with a wet, sloppy mound as rain fell throughout the evening, needed 31 pitches to get three outs.

Gonzalez allowed two inherited runners to score. Storen failed to retire a single batter. Both of Storen’s runners scored while Burnett was in the game, and he allowed two of his own as the Braves whittled what was a seven-run deficit when Strasburg exited down to a one-run game in the ninth.

Clippard’s inning began with a five-pitch walk to Dan Uggla and devolved from there, featuring a pitch that hit the No. 8 hitter and a two-run triple that made official what the Nationals had been trying to stave off for the previous three innings: the largest lead they’d ever blown.

The game-tying home run off the bat of Danny Espinosa in the ninth were not enough. One 11th-inning run surrendered by Tom Gorzelanny — the one reliever Johnson was perhaps trying to avoid most in hopes of possibly using him twice on Saturday — proved insurmountable.

“It hurts,” Clippard said, calling his performances of late “not real sharp,” and saying he “hasn’t been real good lately.” “It hurts bad. We’ve got to win that game, bottom line — and we usually do. Ninety-nine times out of 100 we win that game.”

In a clubhouse drenched in silence, they spoke of moving forward, of bouncing back. Of not stewing over what could have been.

“It was a tough loss,” Johnson said. “But it was just one loss.”

“It’s an emotional game for people watching, and it gets us a little bit,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman who made a crucial throwing error after a terrific lunging stop on Uggla’s screaming bouncer in the 11th that led to the winning run. “But in the grand scheme of things, it’s one game. We show up tomorrow just like we do after every other game.”

But it was hard not to at least think of what could have been.

As Zimmerman’s three-run homer — which gave them a 6-0 lead — landed halfway up the left field stands in the third inning, Nationals Park exploded. It was the sound, it seemed, of 34,228 fans saying to themselves, “So this is a pennant race?”

On the outset of one of the biggest series in team history, the Nationals were making a mockery of their closest divisional competition.

The series sold itself. Four games between the two best teams in the National League East with 3 ½ games separating them in the standings. One series that could be difference between the Nationals heading to New York on Sunday night up 7 ½ games on the Braves, or down a half-game in the division they’ve led for the last 104 days.

It didn’t matter that Strasburg wasn’t operating with his best stuff and was darting in and out of trouble. Two two-out, three-run homers off Tommy Hanson had put the Braves on the ropes. An early haymaker from Michael Morse got it started. What seemed to be the knockout punch came three innings later when Zimmerman connected.

“It’s an emotional roller coaster,” Strasburg said. “But it’s one game.”

As Friday inched toward Saturday, though, they could only shake their heads. There was no time to regret, only to turn their focus toward the next day. Toward the next game.

“Nothing but gamers over [in that clubhouse],” Johnson said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We’ve had our share of adversity. This is a bump in the road. We’ve got two tomorrow.”

“This team is very resilient,” Zimmerman added. “Whether it’s a loss like this or a big win, we know the next day that whatever happened yesterday doesn’t do anything for us that day. Just come back and keep playing the game like we’ve been playing it. It was a good game. It was two good teams. They’re going to be there ‘til the end. That’s just two good teams playing baseball. It was an exciting game.”

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