The Marlins’ comeback to walk off against the Nationals on Monday was one of those happy reminders that you really do have to play the games. With a Miami win expectation that FanGraphs pegged at one or two percent with the Nats up 6-0 after six innings, this is a game the Nationals have to deliver on if they’re ever going to put the Braves away in the NL East race. Instead, sometimes the “better” team winds up demonstrating it really isn’t that much better than everyone else. In football, they’ll talk about the notion of what can happen any given Sunday, but in baseball every day is gameday, and everything -- every move and every outcome -- matters.
Let’s start with Jayson Werth getting thrown out needlessly challenging Giancarlo Stanton’s arm on a leadoff single in the seventh -- again, with his team up 6-0 -- and getting injured on the play. Not too many months ago, Nationals manager Matt Williams was being hailed for old-school wisdom for pulling Bryce Harper out of a game for not hustling. Whatever you make of that, if the side benefit of old-school virtue is having a notoriously fragile regular like Werth hurt himself, maybe the Nats need less, not more of it -- especially if it helps keep their already injury-hampered lineup strong for the stretch.
OK, so maybe Werth’s injury doesn’t have to be the end of the world, because it’s 6-0. Well, sure, except that right field probably isn’t Nate McLouth’s best position, not that he’s much of a center fielder these days, either; his six starts in right for Washington this year are more than he’s made in the previous five seasons combined. But he is the Nationals’ notional fourth outfielder, so in he went. We can probably really only blame him for Garrett Jones’ seventh-inning triple with two outs -- McLouth dove and didn’t even get a glove on the ball. But hey, they were up 6-0, and he hustled, right? Except that scored the Marlins’ first run from first base, then created a second two-out run when Marcell Ozuna’s infield dribbler clanged off Ian Desmond’s glove.
So let’s go to the ninth inning: Nats still up by three, save situation, closer in -- all very playbook, all very much as it should be. Rafael Soriano had pitched Sunday, but it wasn’t like he’s been terribly overworked of late. But he simply didn’t have it Monday night, generating just one swing-and-miss strike in 26 pitches, and creating trouble at the outset by walking Casey McGehee on four pitches. Wrapped around a lone out, Jones pulls Sori for a double to right, Ozuna plates a run on an opposite-field hit (to right), Jarrod Saltalamacchia pulls a fly ball for a sac fly (to right), and Adeiny Hechavarria triples to right to tie the game. It’s enough to give some of you former Little League right fielders flashbacks to your worst day ever.
Anyway, after a hit batsman, that’s it for Soriano. First and third, lefty Chris Yelich at bat, Williams sensibly brings in lefty Jerry Blevins to get the matchup, and wins it with a strikeout. And then skips the last page of the La Russa playbook by leaving Blevins in to face Jeff Baker. And if you love Jeff Baker for what he is, this is it, this is all he’s for: to face a lefty now and again, and play five or six positions on demand. He has an .858 career OPS versus lefties, .645 against righties. The Marlins had no lefty bat left on the bench; the righty-batting Stanton and McGehee were on deck. This isn’t particle physics, certainly not if you or I get it. This is where you’re supposed to bore the excited few in Marlins Stadium, pause the action (again) and bring in a righty to keep the game alive. Craig Stammen hasn’t pitched in almost a week; what’s the point of carrying seven relievers if you don’t use them?
Williams lets it ride with Blevins, giving Baker his best possible chance to be a hero. Baker executes. Game over, win. Or for the Nats, loss.
Now, sure, we may caution ourselves not to read too much into any one outcome, but sometimes a game in detail can make you wonder, not because it’s “just” one loss. Monday’s loss for the Nationals in one of those games that should have been won. They were supposed to win because they had six runs on the board and Jordan Zimmermann was awesome, because he’s pretty reliable that way -- giving up just two runs on five baserunners in seven innings.
But maybe a night like this goes some way toward explaining why the Nationals aren’t performing as well as their expected record, which is four wins better than their current 57, and five wins ahead of the Braves’ expected record. There were things they had in their control that they failed to do. If the devil’s in the details, it’s interesting to mull these things, especially now when the Nats can’t afford any mistakes heading into what looks like a dogfight with the Braves all the way through the next two months. If they aren’t using their full roster to their best advantage, they need to start. Maybe they do need to be held accountable for doing dumb things on the bases, but perhaps not the same things Williams has voiced his disapproval about publicly. And perhaps they shouldn’t have given a 30-something like McLouth almost $11 million guaranteed for two years after his first good year in five.
It’s certainly more interesting to ponder than the pre-fabricated Nats narratives to explain their failures, like noting Ryan Zimmerman is hurt (again), that Harper hasn’t hit 60 home runs yet/ever/yesterday, or that Stephen Strasburg hasn’t already put Nolan Ryan in the shade. But if the Nationals fall short of making it into October’s action, or have to settle for the one-game play-in, you can bet they’ll have more people to hold accountable than just those usual suspects. And they’ll need to remember games like this one.