Nats Need to Learn to Die Hard

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Just like a
week ago in San Francisco the Nationals found themselves leading entering the
late innings and once again blew it. This was a different type of blowing it
and a different rhythm to the game. Against the Orioles the Nationals had
clubbed four homeruns, three by Ryan Zimmerman, on their way to a 6-3 lead
entering the seventh. In such situations baseball teams in 2013 have an 85.5
percent chance to win and the Nationals are right around that mark at 86.2 percent,
but last night felt worse.  

It was the suddenness of
everything. Jordan Zimmermann wasn’t pitching his best game. He had struggled
with fastball control early and had allowed three runs, but his pitch count was
low and he has been the Nationals best starter all season. It is hard to blame
Davey Johnson for trusting his best starter to get one more inning in when he
hadn’t thrown that many pitches, but the end came quick and it came in a very
American League fashion. Zimmermann gave up a single, followed be a wall
scraper homerun to the number nine batter, followed by a come backer that he
couldn’t field cleanly, and finally a double. Four batters is all it took for
the lead to be gone. That isn’t near enough time to get a reliever warm and
into the game, and there really is no reason to when it looked like Zimmermann
was still pitching well.

The blown
lead was a combination of bad luck and facing one of the toughest line-ups in
the American League. The problem wasn’t that the lead was blown. It was that
Tyler Clippard entered a proceeded to blow the game allowing an inherited
runner to score and then two additional runs of his own. The Nationals gave up
the lead, and then they rolled over, died, and gave away the game, and it isn’t
the first time they beat themselves this season. The Nationals have, in two
months, suffered a seasons worth of wins turned into losses, and that cannot
happen when facing other contending teams. The Nationals have the talent where
they don’t have to play perfect in order just to win like they did in the dark days
of 2008 and 2009, but when playing other contending clubs they need to be
closer to perfect than they have been. 

The real
issue is that the Nationals do not die hard. When ahead in the count Nationals
batters have an OPS of .882. That may sound good, as it is in fact a good OPS,
but the NL average OPS with the batter ahead is .954. That is what is expected
of an average offense. The Cincinnati Reds, who have scored the most runs per
game in the NL, have an OPS of 1.056 in such situations. The Nationals are
doing a poor job of hitting when they have count leverage. Watch the games and
you may notice it. Watch the robotic swings they take in hitters counts and how
many times they pop-up weakly instead of looking for a ball to drive and then
driving it somewhere. The Nationals are in fact the second worst team in
baseball at driving the ball. Their 18.7 percent line drive rate is second
worst in all the majors, and their 46.1 percent ground ball rate tied for
seventh worst.  

Overall the Nationals offense needs to get better at driving the
ball, but the offense cannot be blamed for the loss to the Orioles. When a team
with a pitching staff as good as the Nationals scores six runs that should be a
victory. Last night it wasn’t, and it wasn’t like the Nationals weren’t going
to blow a three run lead at some point. It would be a hard thing to research
but I am betting the percent of teams that haven’t blown a three run lead at
some point during the season is close to, if not, zero. This was just another
example of the Nats not having killer instinct. Of watching a three run lead
slip away, and then quickly turning it into a three run deficit. It is what
should be called a pathetic effort, and just a symptom of a larger problem of
the Nats not knowing how to die hard.

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