For 7.5 innings Sunday afternoon against the Baltimore Orioles the Nats were in no danger of losing the game, and with the bullpen set up in a one run game a victory felt like the most common outcome. The Nationals had won 14 one run games and many of them were decided with the Nats clinging to the slimmest of leads and needing once again for their set-up man and closer to be perfect. On this afternoon that wasn’t to be as Matt Wieters lifted a two run homerun over the centerfield wall to give the Orioles the 2-1 lead.
As soon as the game ended fans were looking for whom to blame. Some wanted to blame an offense that has been struggling to score runs for the last week while others wanted to blame Sean Burnett who before yesterday had been one of the best relievers in baseball. It is of course true that when a pitching staff as a whole allows only two runs then a team should win, but it is also true that when a team enters the 8th inning with a lead of any type they are more likely to win than lose. Despite another poor offensive showing the Nats had a one run lead in the 8th inning and a good chance to win.
There are more than just those two factors at work in this game. The Orioles starter Jake Arrieta came into yesterday’s game with a 5.83 ERA, and while that describes the average of Arrieta’s season it doesn’t describe how he reached that average. Arrieta is an odd pitcher. He is still young and only in his third season. As a minor leaguer Arrieta was labeled as having top of the rotation stuff, but for whatever season he hasn’t been able to put it together at the major leagues, but Arrieta reaches his averages by flashing the brilliance of his potential every now and then.
Before Sunday Arrieta had five starts where he allowed one or fewer runs and pitched at least seven innings. The problem is in his starts where he isn’t dominant he is awful. Jake Arrieta has no middle ground. He lacks the ability to throw a routine quality start of six innings and three runs. Out of Arrieta’s 16 starts he has allowed four or more runs ten times. He has no starts in which he has allowed two or three runs. He is either allowing one or fewer runs or four or more runs. There is no middle ground for Jake Arrieta, and on Sunday against the Nationals he had one of his starts in which he allowed one or fewer runs.
When the 8th inning rolled around the Nationals had a one run lead and were in an excellent position to win with Burnett and Clippard coming in. The only problem was that the true save would have to take place in the 8th inning. The first two batters of that inning were Adam Jones and Matt Wieters. The Orioles best two players. Because of the save rule Tyler Clippard was sitting out in the bullpen instead of standing on the mound while the Orioles two best hitters combined to win the game for the Orioles with a single and a homerun.
The issues with the save stat and why Davey Johnson didn’t use Clippard in the 8th is a post for another time, but if the save stat could be given at the discretion of the official scorer to the reliever who truly saved the game then it would be on its way to being a better stat, or at least one that wouldn’t cost teams as many games like Sunday’s contest against the Orioles. The facts of the game though are that Sean Burnett was on the mound and he would end up facing a player with the fourth highest wOBA for an American League catcher, and that catcher would win the game for the Orioles.
At the end of the day the Nationals lost on the road to a team with a winning record’s two best players and a pitcher who is either lights out or blown out, and in this game he was lights out. Sometimes a team can do everything they have to to win and then lose because the other team did just a little bit more. The Nationals are built in such a way that Sunday won’t be the last time they find themselves in the 8th inning with a one run lead, and it might not even be the last time they lose such a game.