Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Thanks to the Nats' gaffes, the Orioles were the ones celebrating at night's end.
"We had 10 different ways to win that game," the rookie shortstop said. "And we lost it 10 different ways."
There's no way to sugarcoat this, no silver lining to make everyone feel better. The Nationals absolutely blew this ballgame, turning a 6-run lead after four innings into an embarrassing 7-6 loss to the Orioles that could have been prevented on any number of fronts.
It starts, of course, with the defense, which committed four more errors tonight resulting in four unearned runs, including the game-winner. But there were plenty other mistakes. The lineup completely let up after taking that 6-0 lead. Tyler Clippard imploded unlike he had at any previous point this season. And Jim Riggleman overmanaged this one to the point it cost his team victory, making pitching changes left and right in the fifth and sixth innings like this was Game 7 of the World Series, not Game 74 of a sub.-500 season.
"We put ourselves in some situations where we didn't bury them, and that's what really hurts out of that loss," said Nyjer Morgan, whose brilliant performance at the plate and in the field was wasted by night's end.
The defensive gaffes were the Nationals' final undoing, but let's talk first about the way Riggleman managed this game. His team up 6-2 with one out in the fifth, he decided to pull starter J.D. Martin, who wasn't exactly tossing a gem but wasn't awful either.
Riggleman then proceeded to play match-ups like his job depended on it. In came Doug Slaten to face one batter in the fifth. In came Sean Burnett to face one batter (Corey Patterson!) in the sixth. By the time Drew Storen emerged from the bullpen to pitch the seventh, Riggleman had already used five hurlers. It was already clear he was playing with fire, counting on Storen, Clippard and Matt Capps to finish this one off with no fail-safe backup plan.
"I tell our pitchers that all the time: I've got to manage to the situation, not how we got there," the manager said.
Well, the situation that emerged in the eighth was this: Clippard clearly didn't have it, but Riggleman couldn't afford to pull him and try someone else. Even worse, he let the set-up man return to the mound for the ninth despite having already thrown 35 pitches.
"I felt good," said Clippard, who wound up allowing four runs (three earned) on four hits and three walks (one intentional). "I felt like I settled down toward the end of the [eighth] and wanted the ball, wanted to go back out there and get us back in the dugout. I wasn't able to do that. It's frustrating. I felt like I let us down in a big way tonight. It's tough. It's tough to swallow."
By the time this game ended, Capps was on the mound, having been summoned by Riggleman to pitch out of a two-on, one-out jam created by Clippard. The closer nearly did it, getting Julio Lugo to hit a tailor-made, double-play grounder to short. But Cristian Guzman's turn was atrocious, and his throw sailed low and wide of Adam Dunn at first base. The winning run crossed the plate as Camden Yards erupted and the Nationals trudged off the field.
That was the fourth error of the night for the Nats, two a piece for Desmond and Guzman. Between the two of them, they've now combined for 27 errors, with Desmond's 18 leading the majors by leaps and bounds. (Adrian Beltre is closest with 13.)
So the Nationals' season error total is up to 67, most in the majors. They're on pace to match last year's ghastly total of 149, and no one is happy about it.
"It's the major leagues," Riggleman said, "and we've just got to play more major-league defense."
The manager is shouldering some of the blame himself, saying he's "got to do a better job in preparation for them." Truth be told, there's not much more the coaching staff can do for a club that already does as much pregame defensive work as anyone in baseball.
At some point, this comes down to a cold, hard truth: The Nationals have some very poor defensive players out there on a regular basis. Ryan Zimmerman, obviously, is among the best in the game. Ivan Rodriguez, while not the same catcher he was a decade ago, still brings it. Roger Bernadina has been impressive in right field. Josh Willingham has made strides in left field but won't challenge for a Gold Glove anytime soon.
Adam Dunn simply isn't a good defensive player. The Nats know it. A good first baseman saves errors from his infielders. Dunn can't do that. The Nats, though, are willing to live with it because of Dunn's bat (he did drive in four runs tonight).
Nyjer Morgan can be cringe-inducing in center field, but he can also be among the best in baseball, as he showed tonight in robbing Corey Patterson of a home run on what Patterson ranked alongside Gary Matthews' circus catch from a couple years ago.
"Gary, it was probably the best catch I've ever seen," Patterson said. "But his was right behind it."
Desmond, obviously, is on pace to commit about 40 errors by season's end. But the Nats knew what they were getting when they made him their starting shortstop. He's going to make mistakes, but he's also going to make plenty of plays no one else on the roster will. You just have to hope he progresses as this season goes on and makes major strides next year.
If nothing else, Desmond remains confident in his abilities.
"I want the ball hit to me every time, every pitch, regardless," he said. "I don't care if I make 20 errors in a row. I want the ball to come to me. I'm not scared to field the ball."
Guzman, then, is the real problem. He's not a natural second baseman, was never a good shortstop and has never thrown the ball well. Perhaps it's time to reduce his playing time, making him the No. 3 infielder he was supposed to be when the season began. Adam Kennedy hasn't exactly shown he deserves more playing time, but over the long haul he's less likely to hurt you defensively and can be an adequate bat at the bottom of the lineup.
Would one change at second base cure the Nationals of all that ails them in the field? No. But Riggleman and Co. realize they've got to try something in an attempt to fix a major problem.
"That's the thing we've got to come up with. Myself and the coaches have got to say, 'What can we do different?'" Riggleman said. "Because the work is being put in, and there's a good level of concentration when they're doing it. But something happens in the game, maybe they're feeling the pressure, I don't know. But the number of errors is just not acceptable."
On a night like this, after a gut-wrenching loss like that, nothing seems acceptable.