Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Brandon Phillips takes a retaliatory Miguel Batista fastball in the ribs in the ninth.
That's perhaps the best way to describe the home clubhouse following this 5-1 loss to the Reds, a game that featured any number of infractions both in the pure baseball sense and also in the sportsmanship sense.
Once again, the Nats couldn't get a clutch hit. They put six men on base in the first four innings against Cincinnati rookie Mike Leake and failed to score one of them.
Once again, the Nats made mistakes in the field. They were charged with three errors, and though two of them were of an unconventional variety, they still brought this club's season total to an astounding 53 in 57 games. That's far and away the most in the majors and leaves the Nats on a pace to surpass last year's ridiculous total of 143 errors.
But that's not what this game will be remembered for. No, it will be remembered for three plays in the final two innings, all of them involving Brandon Phillips, all of them resulting in controversy.
Play No. 1: Phillips takes second on Sean Burnett's wild pitch in the eighth, rounds the base, makes contact with Ian Desmond en route to getting thrown out at third, but is awarded the base because Desmond is called for obstruction. That leads to Jim Riggleman's ejection, and ultimately allowed Phillips to score a key run on another controversial play (more on that in a moment).
"He was pretty much coming after me," Desmond said. "He was obviously trying to come after me for the obstruction. I thought I did all I could to get out of the way, but I guess it wasn't enough."
Desmond quickly added that he didn't fault Phillips for what he did and called it a heads-up baserunning play. Riggleman, though, felt umpire Dan Bellino should have taken into consideration the fact Desmond was trying to get out of the way. The manager's argument went nowhere, and he was promptly ejected.
"I don't really know what took place, but I know the explanation I got didn't satisfy me," Riggleman said. "So I argued that. It didn't make a lot of sense to me."
All that was merely the precursor to the biggest play of the night, which came moments later when Phillips took off on a grounder to short, slammed into catcher Wil Nieves and knocked the ball loose to score the Reds' fourth run.
Nothing wrong with the collision. There was something wrong with Phillips' reaction. He immediately pounded his chest in celebration, a gesture that set the Nationals off.
"He looked like he scored a touchdown or something, the way he celebrated," Nieves said. "Hitting me is part of the game. It's going to happen. It's part of the game. Just what he did, I don't think it was professional."
Standing in the home dugout, Ivan Rodriguez (currently on the DL) rose to the top step and had some words for Phillips and the Reds. The issue didn't figure to go away. Some form of retaliation was bound to happen.
Sure enough, when Phillips came up to bat again with two outs in the ninth, Nieves set up on the inside corner. Miguel Batista reached back and fired a fastball at Phillips' ribs. Phillips took it like a man and trotted to first base. Plate umpire Joe West immediately ejected Batista, who offered no argument even though he amazingly tried to insist afterward the plunking wasn't intentional.
"The umpire's just doing his job," Batista said. "If it looks suspicious, he has the right to throw me out. He was the only one who thought it was intentional."
Uh, not exactly, Miguel. Everyone in the ballpark knew it was intentional, and everyone else in the Nationals clubhouse basically admitted it.
"I think any team in the league would have done that exact same thing," Desmond said. "We obviously want to look out for our catcher. He's our leader right now. I don't think that was anything out of the ordinary. I think everybody in the ballpark knew that he was going to hit. The whole thing was handled right."
"I think everybody in the ballpark kind of knew that was going to happen," Nieves added. "So he got hit. I thought he got hit where he was supposed to. Not in the head. Obviously we don't play like that. Miguel hit him in a good spot."
Or, as Riggleman put it: "Players take care of issues. I thought it was handled very professionally by everyone involved. It's over."
It would appear there won't be any carryover to tomorrow's series finale, even if Phillips (a former Expos farmhand who has riled up plenty of teammates and opponents alike over the years) seemed oblivious to his infraction.
"I play with a lot of excitement," he said. "I'm just out there playing. I don't see anything wrong with what I did. If people think I did something wrong, I'll apologize to anyone that thinks so, but it's the [game] of baseball. I'm just going to keep on going out there playing the best way I know how."
The Nationals are not playing the best way they know how right now. They've lost 15 of their last 22, have been slumping at the plate with men on base, have been turning sloppy in the field and are showing signs of frustration.
This is a critical juncture for this team. It surprised many with its play over the season's first month-and-a-half, to the point where everyone began to expect a high level of play. Over the last three weeks, things have steadily turned south.
The Nationals still are only three games under .500. They've established a resiliency not found in previous versions of the squad. And they're about to add a staff ace on Tuesday.
If the Nats would like to offer Stephen Strasburg a nice welcome gift, some better performances on the field would be a good choice.