Anyone paying even moderate attention to the Nationals this season can see the club is significantly better than previous teams. Look a little closer, though, and you see a team still learning how to become good. Take today’s 8-5 loss to the Cincinnati Reds in 11 innings — just as doing little things right has already led to seven wins in ten games this season, young Ross Detwiler‘s inability to hold his temper in the face of Laz Diaz’s inconsistent strike zone put his team in a hole they could not quite overcome. As a result, the Nationals missed an opportunity to sweep their first four-game series ever at Nationals Park.
They sure made it close, though, batting back from a 5-0 deficit before bowing in extra frames.
Beginning the game, Ross Detwiler did not look as dominant as the four previous Washington starting pitchers. After three poor umpiring calls, one at first base and two missed strike calls by Diaz, who has a long history of poor calls made at the expense of the Nationals, Detwiler seemed to let his frustration get the best of him. He grooved a 2-2 fastball to Ryan Ludwick, who struggles to hit any pitch except the fastball, and watched it sail far over the fence for a grand slam. Bang, zoom, Detwiler had allowed more runs in one inning that his cohorts combined had surrendered in their last four games combined.
The young left-hander admitted Diaz’s failure to call what would have been inning ending strikes on Jay Bruce and Ludwick, which replays showed were clearly in the zone, got to him. He told CSN Washington and Nats Insider blog author Mark Zuckerman, “I need to stay in it and focus mentally on my next pitch,” Detwiler said. “I think I let it go a little bit. It wasn’t completely gone, but I let it go a little bit. And that’s when you make your mistake.”
Unlike past versions of Washington ball clubs, the Nats refused to fold. They scrapped their way to five runs against Cincinnati starter Mike Leake, tying the game on an Ian Desmond single in the seventh. The Reds bullpen shut the door from there, as Logan Ondrusek, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Arredondo, and Sean Marshall pitched 4 2/3 shutout innings, permitting only four hits, with eight strikeouts.
For five innings, the Nationals bullpen matched them. Craig Stammen pitched two shutout innings, further confirming Mike Rizzo’s decision to keep him on the staff. Ryan Mattheus, Brad Lidge, and Henry Rodriguez added an inning each of shutout relief. These four pitched five shutout innings, with three hits, three walks, and seven strikeouts.
The meltdown in the Washington pen came from the most unlikely source — All-Star Tyler Clippard. He allowed four hits and three runs, with Joey Votto’s two-RBI double the crushing blow that ultimately decided the game. Clippard has not been himself so far this season. He currently has a 7.20 ERA.
Even more worrisome, Clippard revealed after the game that Davey Johnson had hoped to not use him today, as the lanky set-up man complained of shoulder soreness. While Clippard dismissed this as normal for him this early in the season, his results so far raises concern. His health and performance bear close watching over the next week or two.
While this afternoon’s result was disappointing (as was the small crowd of 25,679 on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, with the Nationals riding a five-game winning streak), Washington won the series, three games to one, including two of the three games that went to extra innings. The Nationals have won all three of their season-opening series.
Champs of the Game: Former MVP Joey Votto had the game-winning double in the 11th, one of the few times the Nationals pitched to him today and made a spectacular play on Wilson Ramos‘ two-out smash to end the game. Otherwise, it’s 8-7 with Ramos on first and Stephen Lombardozzi at the plate representing the winning run.
For the Nationals, Adam LaRoche had two more hits and two RBI. Desmond went 3-5 with two RBI and Jayson Werth had two more hits to raise his average to .350.
Chumps of the Game: Nationals’ hitters overall went 2-13 with runners in scoring position, scuttling a potential comeback. Also, Diaz’s strike zone was so small and variable, he frustrated even the unflappable Ryan Zimmerman, who made three fabulous plays in the field. Umpiring is a tough, thankless job, but, if his work in Washington games is indicative of his overall performance, he is one of the game’s poorest arbiters.
For the Reds, Leake, who once boasted he was better than Stephen Strasburg, failed to hold a huge lead and left his club in serious danger of being swept.
Unsung Hero: Chapman, who stemmed the Nationals’ momentum with two innings of dominant relief.
Next game: Tomorrow, Monday, April 16, 7:05 p.m. at Nationals Park, the first of four versus the Houston Astros. Stephen Strasburg (1-0, 0.69) faces Kyle Weiland (0-1, 7.20).