For five months, the Nationals have known they could lose a game because of their inability to stop opponents from stealing bases off them. When it finally came to fruition Saturday evening, there was nothing they could do but acknowledge once again this is a problem area and that they'll continue to try to address it.
That didn't make this 10-9 loss to the Cardinals sting any less. In what proved to be among their most frustrating losses of the season, the Nationals wasted an early offensive outburst, saw their presumed playoff ace get smoked for a career-high eight runs, rally to take the lead on some heads-up baserunning and then watch as the back end of their bullpen gave up the tying and winning runs before an exasperated crowd of 34,004.
There were no shortage of significant developments that took place over the course of 3 hours and 29 minutes on a muggy, 91-degree late-afternoon in the District, but the defining moment surely came when Drew Storen let Allen Craig steal second base without drawing a throw in the top of the ninth of a tie game. Moments later, Craig came around to score on David Freese's single to left, the final blow of a wild ballgame.
"I'm just concentrating on trying to get a groundball there," Storen said. "And he just took the base."
Storen is hardly the only member of the Nationals' staff to be victimized by the stolen base this season. They've now given up 97 free bases on 113 attempts -- an 85.8 percent success rate that ranks only behind the Pirates for worst in the majors -- and almost all of it is directly attributable to pitchers' inability to hold runners on.
Storen's delivery to the plate may be the slowest on the entire staff. He was timed at a whopping 2.0 seconds by the Nationals' coaching staff on Saturday, nearly three-quarters of a second slower than the MLB average.
"With that move, anybody can steal," manager Davey Johnson grumbled.
And by "anybody," Johnson certainly was describing Craig, a slow-footed outfielder who in his career has had 271 opportunities to steal either second or third base and has attempted to do it only eight times.
"It's something I need to work on," Storen said, "and just something I guess I need to make an adjustment for next time."
The crucial stolen base (and subsequent RBI single) capped a wild ballgame that featured plenty of shaky pitching by the Nationals. It began with Jordan Zimmermann's worst start of the year, a laborious outing in which the right-hander allowed eight runs in only 3 23 innings.
Making that even worse, Zimmermann was handed a 4-0 lead after the first inning, then a 6-2 lead after the second. He gave all the runs back and then some, serving up home runs to Freese and Matt Holliday and later a three-run double to Matt Carpenter.
Thus continued Zimmermann's late-summer, downward slide. After posting a league-best 2.28 ERA over his first 21 starts, he's seen that number skyrocket to 6.16 over his last six games.
"I'm trying to do the same things I've been doing all year," he said. "When it was going good, I felt like I could go out there and throw anything and it would be a strike or a groundball. ... They're just putting the ball in play and hitting the ball harder right now."
Zimmermann, who was held back a couple of days with right shoulder inflammation last month, insisted his arm feels fine. He's now thrown 164 23 innings, most of his career, but he's not concerned about fatigue down the stretch.
"I feel great," he 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."
Despite their starter's struggles, the Nationals still put themselves in position to win this game thanks to a sixth-inning rally that saw the tying and go-ahead runs score on Ryan Zimmerman's two-out single to right. Jayson Werth scored easily from second base, but the real highlight was Zimmerman intentionally getting himself into a rundown between first and second, buying time for Bryce Harper to sprint home with the go-ahead run.
Harper, a former catcher in high school and junior college, said his experience at the position allowed him to better read the play, sensing St. Louis' Yadier Molina would leave the plate uncovered while throwing to get Zimmerman in the rundown.
"He's pretty aggressive with his arm," Harper said of Molina. "I would've done the exact same thing if I was catching. So I was just thinking to myself: 'What would I do?' and he did the exact same thing."
That heads-up move put the Nationals ahead 9-8, but it only made the ensuing bullpen collapse all the tougher to swallow.
Thanks to the Braves' loss against Philadelphia, their lead in the NL East remains 6 12 games and their magic number dropped to 24, which was some consolation at day's end.
"The important thing is we just took a game off the calendar," said right fielder Jayson Werth, who departed in the ninth inning with leg cramping but expects to play Sunday. "Atlanta lost, so nothing changes."