CINCINNATI -- If the last 48 hours of baseball between the Nationals and Reds are any indication, there are two conclusions to draw about these well-constructed ballclubs: 1) There's a good chance they could see each other again, with the stakes much higher, in October, and 2) Those games figure to be tightly contested and come down to a couple of key moments.
That much was obvious both Saturday and Sunday afternoons as the Nats and Reds traded blows during the final two games of a highly entertaining series. (Friday night's 15-0 whitewashing by Cincinnati was a fluke aberration more than anything.)
On Saturday, it was the Nationals coming up big with the game on the line late. On Sunday, the tables were turned.
Thanks to an aggressive approach against Stephen Strasburg and one ill-fated decision by Danny Epsinosa, the Reds pulled off a 6-3 victory to capture this early-April series between NL powerhouses and send the Nationals home no longer in first place in the NL East.
"They obviously have a good team," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "Every guy in their lineup is pretty much like us: Guys hit the ball out of the ballpark and give good, disciplined at-bats. ... But we didn't put our best foot forward."
No, they didn't, especially during Sunday's finale at Great American Ball Park, and certainly not during a critical moment in the bottom of the sixth.
With the game knotted at 3 and both starters settling down after an early barrage of offense, the Reds found themselves with a golden opportunity to re-take the lead: Runners on the corners, nobody out, No. 2 hitter Xavier Paul at the plate with MVP candidate Joey Votto on-deck. Strasburg -- his pitch count already into triple digits -- got Paul to rap a sharp grounder right at Espinosa, who like Desmond was playing halfway in for that situation.
It appeared to be a tailor-made, 4-6-3 double play, albeit it one that would allow the go-ahead run to score. Even so, that one run seemed a small price to pay to clear the bases, record two outs and not allow Votto to step to the plate with a chance to inflict some real damage.
"It's a double-play ball," manager Davey Johnson said afterward. "When you go halfway, the rule of thumb is: Hard-hit ball, turn two. Slow-hit ball, yeah, get the one out at home. But give them one run, get out of there."
Espinosa, though, made the surprise decision to throw to the plate, hoping to nab the speedy Derrick Robinson and keep the game tied. A perfect throw might have done the trick, but Espinosa pulled catcher Kurt Suzuki slightly up the first-base line, and Robinson slid in safely. Worse, the Reds still had two men on, still had nobody out and still had Votto coming up to bat.
"It was just my misunderstanding of why were playing halfway," Espinosa said. "I thought the reason we were playing halfway was to try and cut that run."
Both Desmond and Suzuki also took some share of the blame on the play, Desmond saying he should have yelled at Espinosa to turn two instead of throwing to the plate, Suzuki saying he should have positioned himself in a way that would have given him a better chance of tagging out Robinson.
Regardless, that moment was emblematic of the Nationals' overall play during the weekend series. After a crisp, well-executed sweep of the Marlins to open the season, they were much sloppier during these three games in Cincinnati.
"We didn't play our best, by no means," Desmond said.
That included Strasburg, who at times during this start was unhittable -- go watch a replay of the 88-mph changeup he struck out Votto on in the second inning, one that broke eight inches to the right, according to Pitch F/X -- but also labored through several frames and displayed none of the efficiency that marked his Opening Day win over the Marlins.
Ambushed by the Reds for three early runs, Strasburg needed 23 pitches to get through the top of the first, the dagger a two-run double by Jay Bruce off a curveball. He prevented any more runs scoring through the fifth but saw his pitch count rise to 92, 12 more than he threw in the opener.
With the game tied at that point and the pitcher's spot due up with two outs and a runner on second, Johnson could have elected to pinch-hit for Strasburg and turn things over to his bullpen. He made that move plenty of times last season.
But that was when Strasburg on a strict innings limit, a constraint no longer in play, so Johnson let the pitcher hit for himself (he struck out) and then re-take the mound for the bottom of the sixth.
"I figured he could give me another inning, or maybe two," Johnson said. "He's my horse. I liked the way he was throwing. And especially after an extra-inning game yesterday where I ended up using a lot of guys, you gotta get at least six out of him."
Strasburg appreciated the confidence his manager showed in him.
"Yeah, absolutely," the right-hander said. "That's what I want to do. I want to go deep into ballgames. ... You want to build up your stamina and get used to going out there and pitching through it. Some days you're cruising and you're 99-100 pitches through seven. And there's some games where you're right around 100 through five and you still want to go out there and try to get through at least two more innings."
As it turned out, Strasburg couldn't even complete one more frame. He gave up back-to-back singles to open the sixth, then watched as Espinosa made his ill-fated throw to the plate. He bounced back to retired Votto for the third consecutive at-bat, but then served up an RBI single to Brandon Phillips, bringing Johnson out of the dugout in search of the ball.
Strasburg's final tally included six earned runs and nine hits (each tied for the most he's ever allowed) on 114 pitches (the second-most he's ever thrown).
"Some days, you're going to give up a lot of singles, and when they all get on base, they seem to come up with clutch singles," he said. "You've just got to tip your cap and move forward."
That might sum up how the Nationals felt about the entire weekend. They arrived in Cincinnati sky-high, sporting a 3-0 record and 0.33 staff ERA. They left town this evening perhaps a bit humbled, now 4-2 with a 4.17 ERA and recognizing they aren't the only potential juggernaut in the National League.
"That's a good ballclub," Suzuki said of the Reds. "They're a good team. They had some guys who were hot this series, and they played good baseball. They pitched, they played defense, obviously they can hit. ... Obviously, we wanted to win the series. But I felt like it was a good series."