After meltdown, Nationals must bounce back

After meltdown, Nationals must bounce back
July 29, 2014, 12:30 am
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MIAMI — The 2014 Nationals really haven't had to deal with losses like this, gut-punch losses in which a 6-run lead somehow turns into a 7-6 loss before anyone has sufficient time to process the carnage.

The mood inside the visitors clubhouse at Marlins Park on Monday night was one of disbelief, a group of players and coaches shell-shocked after a rare implosion by the Nationals bullpen, most notably closer Rafael Soriano, charged with four runs in the fateful and disastrous bottom of the ninth.

"No excuse," Soriano said. "Every pitch that I throw, I don't think I have the good command that I have before. A bad day for me and for my team."

Yet as the shock began to wear off and the larger picture began to come back into focus, players in every corner of that clubhouse insisted this team won't let this loss, staggering as it was, carry over in any way.

"They're fine," said Matt Williams, who had his own series of managerial decisions to rehash when he left for the night. "A loss is a loss is a loss. It stings a little more when you've got the lead late and it doesn't happen for you, but they're resilient. If they've shown anything this year, they are that."

The Nationals indeed have shown some resiliency this season, though mostly in the form of overcoming injuries and the occasional late deficit themselves. They have not, however, needed to bounce back from a loss like this, testament to just how good their bullpen has been since Opening Day.

"Fortunately, we haven't had to deal with a lot of these," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "This is such a good bullpen that typically when we get up a few runs late, the game's been over. So I think that's kind of why it's a shock, because it hasn't happened much this year. But it's going to. You play this many games, you're going to see some crazy stuff. And this happened to be one of them."

[MORE: Werth hopes to play Tuesday after spraining ankle]

What lessons can the Nationals take from this one? There are no shortage.

— Don't assume any lead is safe. Up 6-0 in the seventh inning, they had no reason to think the outcome of this game was still in doubt. They perhaps acted a bit like it, though. Jordan Zimmermann, who carried a shutout into the seventh, started throwing fastballs over the plate and wound up surrendering back-to-back, two-out RBI hits, ultimately bringing his evening to an earlier exit than planned. The right-hander looked like he could go the distance. Instead, with the score now 6-2 and his pitch count at 91, he was pulled.

— Don't attempt to make unnecessary plays when trying to protect a sizable lead. When the score was still 6-0, Nate McLouth (who had just taken over in right field for an injured Jayson Werth) attempted to make a diving catch of Garret Jones' sinking liner. McLouth didn't come all that close to pulling off the play, instead letting the ball get past him and roll to the wall for an RBI triple. If he simply keeps the ball in front of him, the seventh inning (and everything after that) might play out in a different manner.

— Don't stick with old-school pitching roles based on stats instead of sensing who has the hot hand and who doesn't. Drew Storen entered with two outs in the eighth to face Giancarlo Stanton in what was now a 6-3 game with another runner on third. Storen proceeded to back the big slugger off the plate with an inside fastball before getting him to flail at a couple of sliders outside. It was a masterful performance by Storen, taking up only four pitches, and it suggested he was feeling particularly good on this night. So why not stick with him for the ninth inning? Because the Nationals led by three runs, and that meant this was a save situation, and Soriano is this team's closer. What's remarkable is that had the score been 7-3 instead of 6-3, with the save no longer in play, Williams probably would have stayed with Storen. But Williams — like just about every other MLB manager, it should be noted — always goes to his closer in a save situation.

— Don't stick with the closer once it becomes obvious he doesn't have it. When Soriano threw four straight balls to open the ninth, alarm bells should have been ringing. As good as the veteran right-hander has been this season, he has over time shown that when things go bad, they really go bad. Sure enough, Soriano followed the leadoff walk with a double to Jones, then an RBI single to Marcell Ozuna, then a sacrifice fly to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, then an RBI triple to Adeiny Hechavarria that tied the game. Not until Soriano plunked pinch-hitter Donovan Solano — the fifth Marlins batter to reach base out of six who stepped to the plate in the inning — did Williams emerge from the dugout to take the ball from Soriano.

To be fair, Williams' options at that point were limited. Tyler Clippard was unavailable after throwing 21 pitches Sunday in Cincinnati. Storen and Ross Detwiler had already been used. Craig Stammen needed to be saved for extra innings. Aaron Barrett had struggled in the ninth on Sunday.

So Williams waited until the Marlins had a left-handed hitter at the plate in Christian Yelich before summoning for Jerry Blevins. Blevins did his job, striking out Yelich on a 2-2 pitch. But now the lefty had to stay in to face Jeff Baker. Right-handed batters are hitting .324 against Blevins this season, and Baker proceeded to drill a changeup over Bryce Harper's head in left field for the game-winner.

"No margin for error there," Blevins said. "I was focused in on getting Yelich, trying to get him to swing at a pitch that I feel comfortable with, and I got him out. Then I wanted to get ahead of Baker, I wanted to throw a changeup down. It didn't get down and we lose the game."

"Sometimes the best-laid plans don't work, and tonight, it didn't," Williams said. "But we'll be ready to go tomorrow."

That was the message being delivered throughout a sullen clubhouse late Monday night.

"It's, whatever," Werth said. "You move on. Things happen. We'll be fine. We're a resilient team. Got a long way to go. We've got a good club. I like the way things set up for us and the way we're playing. It's just one game."