Nats Need to Find a Way to Win the Close Ones

The Nats overall are 8-4 in one run games and that might lead people to
believe that they have done a good job of winning the close ones, and while
they did end up winning yesterday, the way they went about it is not the path
to success. Against Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner the Nationals scored a
combined three runs. That by itself may not sound good and no one is denying
that the Nats offense has been scuffling, but Matt Cain holds a career 3.35 ERA
and is one of the best pitchers in the NL. Madison Bumgarner is a rising star
and has been the Giants best starter this season and his career 3.17 ERA isn’t
too shabby either, and while they Nats struggled to score runs against Cain and
Bumgarner the Giants scored a combined one run against Stephen Strasburg and
Gio Gonzalez. In other words, the Nats starters were just that much better.

In both games the Nats entered the late
innings with a one run lead and handed the ball to a bullpen that was believed
to be one of the best in the NL and in both games the Nats bullpen blew it and
forced the game into extra innings. The Nats ended up splitting these two
games, but they should have won both of them. These
games represent what playoff baseball is like. Whether it is
Strasburg vs. Cain, Gio vs. Bumgarner or Strasburg vs. Cueto, Gio vs. Latos or
Strasburg vs. Wainwright, Gio vs. Miller; if the Nats starters out-duel the
other team’s top pitchers they have to win the game. This is how the Nats are
ultimately going to win a World Series. While the lack of offense and ability
to score runs is very alarming the more alarming aspect of these last two games
was the Nats inability to close out games, and this isn’t the first time it has
happened this season.  

We can go back to the Nats first game
against the Braves this season where they entered the ninth with a two run lead
and after Storen loaded the bases and had two outs Ryan Zimmerman made an ill-advised
throw to second base and ended up throwing the ball into right field, allowing
two runs to score. Two more runs would score an inning later when Stammen gave
up a homer to slap hitting utility infielder Ramiro Pena. The Nats had the game
won and lost it but this wasn’t a pitching duel. The Nats scored four runs in
this game and were opposed by Julio Teheren who won’t be on the Braves playoff
roster unless a couple injuries occur. The more alarming losses are like the
ones the Nats suffered Sunday May 12 where Davey Johnson took Gio Gonzalez out
an inning too early and turned to Storen and Soriano to close the game out and
instead of finishing with a 1-0 win the Nats ended up with a 2-1 loss.  

During this latest road trip the Nats
suffered a couple late innings collapses. The first happened against the
Padres where Eric Stults pitched the game of his life and Jordan Zimmermann
made one mistake on a homerun to Yonder Alonso. It was a 1-1 game entering the
eighth inning and should have remained that way except Jordan Zimmermann had
given a base runner an extra 90 feet on a missed pick-off throw. The Nats maybe
should have and could have scored more runs against Eric Stults, but his slop
had the batters baffled all day, and when in these close games the intensity
and focus has to pick up. These are the types of games won and lost on the
smallest of mistakes and too many times the Nationals are the team making the
mistakes. The fielding and bullpen have been the biggest culprits and while it
is easy to say score more runs even if the Nats start to do that they won’t be
able to avoid pitcher’s duels completely, and aside from all that there is no
difference in handing the bullpen a 6-5 lead or a 1-0 lead. They are both one
run leads and the games that need to be closed out.  

The Nats have done many things wrong
this early season, but there are reasons for hope. Drew Storen may have a 4.50
ERA and 4.26 FIP, but his K/9 and BB/9 are both in line with career averages
while his HR/9 is more than double his career average and his .367 BABIP is
abnormally high. When his HR rate and BABIP normalize he will look just like
the old Drew Storen again. As far as Rafael Soriano goes he may have blown two
out of his last three saves, but he has a season ERA of 3.00 which last I
checked is good. The Nats offense does need to score more runs, but when they
find themselves in a pitcher’s duel they have to close those games out as well,
and they will. The bad performance by the Nats bullpen over these last two days
aren’t normal and it will turn out simply due to random
statistical variance, but keep in mind if the Nats do get to the playoffs
they may have to see Matt Cain again, and in eight post-season games his 2.10
ERA speaks to the fact that it is even harder to score runs off him once the
playoffs start. 

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