It's never over till it's over, but this game was an absolute punch to the gut for the Washington Nationals, and it's difficult to see them chasing down the New York Mets now. Reporters on site tweeted that the Mets were whooping and hollering as they reached the clubhouse after Tuesday night's game, and with good reason: They'd just won the game of the year, rallying from six runs down in the seventh inning to tie it against the beleaguered Nationals bullpen, then winning it when Kirk Nieuwenhuis hit a pinch-hit homer off Jonathan Papelbon in the eighth inning and Jeurys Familia induced a game-ending double play with two runners on in the ninth. Final score: Mets 8, Nationals 7. Season score: Mets up six games with 24 left.
Some quick thoughts, mostly related to the Nationals' bullpen ...
The funny thing about this bullpen is the Nationals are actually 64-0 when leading after eight innings. If there's one thing we've learned in recent years, it's that bullpen depth is just as important as the closer -- maybe more so, since it's the middle relievers who do most of the dirty work when entering with runners on base. The Nationals, however, have now lost 11 games when leading entering the seventh inning. Even though they have a perfect record when leading after eight, only the Toronto Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves, with 12 defeats, have lost more games when leading after six innings.
It's easy to blame Nats manager Matt Williams -- and he's almost certainly going to get fired after the season -- but at some point the relievers have to do their job. It didn't help that, like Max Scherzer on Monday, Jordan Zimmermann ran up a high pitch count and was unable to go deep into the game. After Matt Thornton was needed to finish off the sixth, Blake Treinen entered in the seventh and gave up a hit to David Wright, but then got two outs. In fact, when Travis d'Arnaud popped up for the second out, the Nationals had a 99.2 percent chance of winning the game, according to FanGraphs' win probability chart. Ain't baseball wonderful?
Michael Conforto walked and Wilmer Flores hit an RBI single. Williams went to lefty Felipe Rivero. Pinch hitter Juan Uribe walked. Curtis Granderson walked. Williams then did what he'd been criticized for not doing: using Drew Storen before the eighth inning. Didn't work. Yoenis Cespedes drilled a three-run double down the left-field line off a 1-0 sinker. An apparently shaken Storen then walked the next three batters, including Lucas Duda with the bases loaded.
It's amazing how much of the history of this generation of Nationals is tied to bullpen failures, and Storen in particular. In Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series, Storen coughed up a 7-5 lead in the ninth when the St. Louis Cardinals scored four runs. But he wasn't the only one that game. In the seventh, then-manager Davey Johnson curiously used Edwin Jackson, who allowed a run. Tyler Clippard also allowed a run in the eighth.
In the 2014 Division Series against the San Francisco Giants, the Nationals led the second game 1-0 entering the ninth. Williams replaced Zimmermann after a two-out walk in the ninth, but Storen allowed a single to Buster Posey and game-tying double to Pablo Sandoval. The Nationals eventually lost in 18 innings.
In Game 4, with the season on the line, the score was tied 2-2 in the seventh when Williams used Thornton and Aaron Barrett, whose wild pitch would allow the go-ahead run. Clippard and Storen, the team's top two relievers, never got in the game. Stephen Strasburg could have pitched. Williams went with a rookie who had walked 20 batters in 40 innings.
This year, Storen was "demoted" from closer to setup guy after the team acquired Papelbon, even though he had a 1.73 ERA. But he's struggled in his new role. On Aug. 7, he gave up a grand slam to Carlos Gonzalez to blow a 4-1 lead. On Aug. 9, he entered a 4-4 game and gave up two runs to lose. Against the Cardinals on Sept. 1, he came on with a 5-3 lead and gave up the tying runs; the Nats would lose in the ninth. And then Tuesday night. A brutal stretch for Storen.
As for Williams, however: What was he thinking when he asked Anthony Rendon to bunt in the ninth after Jayson Werth led off with a base hit -- especially after Familia ran the count to 3-1? You have to give one of your best hitters a chance to hit there or take a walk. I get that he wanted to get a runner in scoring position for Bryce Harper, but Harper is going to be pitched to very carefully if first base is open. Rendon, who didn't have a sacrifice all season, bunted too hard and the Mets got the force on Werth at second. Harper walked anyway, Yunel Escobar hit into a double play, and the game was over.
Harper MVP note: He's hitting .214/.333/.303 in 15 games against the Mets with one home run, nine walks and 18 strikeouts. Yes, the Mets can pitch and small sample size and all that, but bottom line: He hasn't done much against the team the Nationals need to beat. That has to hurt his MVP case a bit, aside from the whole the-MVP-has-to-come-from-a-playoff-team argument.
In the end, the Nationals just haven't been very good. Yes, they've had injuries. The Mets have had injuries as well. Nats general manager Mike Rizzo traded Clippard in the offseason but didn't come up with a strong setup guy to replace him, which has haunted the team all season. Williams isn't exactly Bruce Bochy or Earl Weaver, but we can all agree a strong bullpen sure makes a manager look a lot smarter. Just ask Ned Yost.