Having watched the Washington Nationals in 2013 I am amazed that they are 13-8 in one run games. That gives the indication that I am wrong about them being unable to win close games, but then I look at the schedule and am reminded that most of the one run games they have won shouldn’t have been one run games. They won 8-7 against the White Sox on April 9, 7-6 against the Mets on April 20, 5-4 over the Tigers on May 9, and the other day in Cleveland they won 7-6 over the Indians. In each of those games they got out to a big lead, blew it, and then ended up winning a one run game. The close games they are losing are much different.
Go back and think about Jayson Werth swinging 3-0, Soriano blowing a save against the Giants and then Yunesky Maya entering the game, Henry Rodriguez in the tenth inning against the Braves, Fernando Abad Friday night in a tie game with Storen, Soriano, and Krol in the bullpen, and Fernando Abad again in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game last night with Storen and Soriano in the bullpen. From the management to the players this team is playing not to lose. Sunday’s day game against the Indians is another perfect example. All they needed was a sac fly or a base hit the other way, but instead they got strikeouts and double play balls. Not one batter just tried to poke the ball the other way. The word hitting gets lost in situational hitting and the Nats can’t hit overall, but they all have the talent and the ability to shorten up their swing and try and flare a ball into the outfield.
This is has been a constant problem with the Nationals this entire season. They are playing not to lose. They believe at some point their natural talent will take over and they will go on a run. They keep talking about it to the media. About how they are better than this, and how they still believe in themselves, but so far all they have been able to do is talk about it. Yesterday I wrote about how they need to hit more line drives, and last night Nationals announcer FP Santangelo talked about how the team is focusing too much on results. A line drive isn’t a result it is an approach. Look for a pitch that can be driven and drive it somewhere. Baseball is a game where trying too hard leads to bad outcomes. The Nats need to fix their approach and then the results will take care of themselves. Sunday afternoon the Nats got one line drive in all their situations with runners on the bases. It resulted in a double play, but it was one line drive. If they had gotten three or four line drives in those seven opportunities then there is a high likelihood the results would have been different.
All of this is asking the players to be better. To care about winning and to change their approach to that of a winning organization, but then they watch their manager bring in the worst option from the bullpen in walk-off situations time and time again. Even if Davey Johnson is going to save Soriano for the save he still has Drew Storen for the bottom of the ninth and last I checked a career 3.21 ERA is better than a 4.72 ERA. A manager interested in winning brings in his best relievers to do the job. Especially when if the job isn’t done the game is over.
Go back to the game against the Giants where Soriano blew the save on Harper’s missed catch. The game wasn’t over after that happened. It had a chance to continue. Stephen Strasburg had pitched seven innings that night, and the Nats had only used Clippard and Soriano from their bullpen. The Night before Zach Duke had started, but they only used Stammen and Rodriguez to finish out the game. Most of the bullpen was available, and Yunesky Maya was called up as an eighth reliever to be used only in case of emergency. Only if Strasburg couldn’t get through five. He got through seven. Anyone the Nats could have brought in was a better option than Yunesky Maya. The situation for which he was brought up never materialized and therefore he had no use in that game. That is a move made by a manager trying to send a message to management that if they are going to give him bad players he is going to throw them to the wolves, but all teams at times have to have players like that on the roster. It is the manager’s job to deploy the players in the best way to win the ball game.
Look at the instance of Henry Rodriguez entering the tenth inning against the Braves. For months Davey Johnson wouldn’t use Rodriguez in close games. He had given him no reason to trust him, but all of a sudden the Nats offense fails to score with runners on second and third and no outs and he feels that waving the white flag and bringing in Rodriguez is the best option. The other options were the recently called up Erik Davis and the closer Rafael Soriano, but it should again be noted that when the opponent scores in the bottom of an inning in extra innings on the road the game is over. There is no second chance. Saving the closer for a theoretical save is great in theory, but if any runs are allowed the game ends and there are no more chances to take the lead.
This brings us to the last few days where this situation has materialized twice and both times Davey Johnson has gone to Fernando Abad. Abad has looked much better as a National than he ever did as an Astro. He is throwing harder and has looked dominant at times, but none of that erases his past or makes him a better option than Drew Storen or Rafael Soriano, and on Friday night if Davey Johnson needed a lefty he had Ian Krol who has looked even better than Abad. There is no guarantee that any of those other pitchers don’t give up runs, or that if the game continued the Nats would score runs, but on four separate occasions with a chance to lose the game Davey Johnson has gone to his worst option.
Whenever Davey Johnson’s management, Dan Haren’s failures, or the slow reaction time of Mike Rizzo to reconstruct his bench are brought up other’s quickly point out that those issues aren’t the problem. The Nats are second to last in baseball in runs scored. That isn’t changing until Bryce Harper gets back. Using wOBA and average times on base per game it can be reasoned there is a half a run a game difference between him and Roger Bernadina. That vastly changes the Nats offense, but there is no solution to that issue until Bryce Harper is healthy. All the other issues only help to magnify the already large and glaring issue of the offense. If Davey Johnson didn’t throw away games, if the Nats had a reliable fifth starter, and if Rizzo were quicker to bring in more solid bench guys the Nats wouldn’t be much better off than they are now, perhaps a game or two better off, but better off is better off, and it means they have a lower hill to climb when Harper is healthy.
The Nationals are not a team with an issue or one problem. They are a team with multiple problems, and at 7.5 games back of the Braves and 6.5 out of the final Wild Card spot it is getting late quickly and the Nats need all their issues to be fixed for them to have any hope of making it. The time has come for the Nationals to stop playing not to lose, to stop talking about how they are better than what they have shown, and to start playing like they mean to win, to show that they are as talented as they think they are instead of talking about it. In other words it is time to nut-up or shut-up. When that happens, when they start focusing on approach over results, when they start using the best options in close games then the wins will start to come, but until then they will continue to drift aimlessly in the standings giving away close game after close game.