Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Failures of execution doom Nats

Associated Press photo
Bryce Harper reacts to striking out with the bases loaded in the eighth.
MIAMI -- Among the many impressive traits Bryce Harper has shown during his first month in the big leagues has been an aversion to chasing pitches out of the strike zone, especially in big spots during ballgames.

Where some seasoned veterans have expanded their strike zone and let opposing pitchers get the best of them, the rookie has remained disciplined and unwilling to cave in.

And then came the eighth inning of Tuesday's 3-1 loss to the Marlins, when for a rare moment the 19-year-old actually looked like a 19-year-old at the plate.

Given an opportunity to hit with the bases loaded and one out during what was at that point a one-run game, Harper struck out on three pitches from Miami reliever Steve Cishek, the dagger a 93-mph fastball at his eyes. Ryan Zimmerman's subsequent fielder's choice officially extinguished the potential rally and ultimately sent the Nationals to their second straight loss at Marlins Park.

"We missed our chance in that eighth inning," manager Davey Johnson said. "We had the right guys up that time. It just didn't happen."

Though the third strike looked like the biggest mistake of the inning, Harper was more upset about his inability to put either of Cishek's first two pitches (each thrown over the heart of the plate) into play. Instead, Harper fouled both offerings into the stands on the third-base side of the stadium, leaving himself in an 0-2 hole against the sidewinding right-hander.

"The last one, I think he just rode it up on me a little bit. He got me," Harper said. "But the first two I could have put in play. They were maybe a little off the plate. But they were pitches I could handle."

If it feels like everyone's nitpicking one at-bat, it's only because this was a game decided by only a handful of key moments.

The Nationals managed to execute one of them -- Corey Brown's perfectly placed, suicide squeeze to score Ian Desmond in the fifth -- but failed after that in allowing the Marlins to take the lead and then hold it.

Each of Miami's first two runs came as a result of poor execution by Nationals starter Edwin Jackson, beginning in the sixth when he was give a chance to stare down one of baseball's most fearsome hitters: Giancarlo Stanton.

The Marlins had a man on third and two out when Stanton (who has already clubbed 11 homers this month) stepped to the plate. The option to intentionally walk the slugger was readily available to Johnson, but the veteran skipper preferred to let Jackson take his chances against Stanton (who had walked on four pitches in the first and flied out to deep center field in the fourth).

"He's pitched to him all night, and he had success against him," Johnson said. "I'm not going to take it out of his hands at that point, even though he's a hot hitter."

With the count 1-1, Jackson tried to come inside with a fastball. Instead, he left it over the plate just enough for Stanton to turn on the pitch and send it down the left-field line for the go-ahead double.

"You're going to have situations where you're going to have to come at 'em and you just take your chances," Jackson said. "Here it is. Best stuff against best stuff. Sometimes you win it, sometimes you lose it."

The mistake that ultimately cost Jackson the game came one inning later, on an errant pickoff attempt. The ball scooted toward the right-field corner, and Chris Coghlan wound up on third base. Moments later, pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs lofted a sacrifice fly to left, bringing home what proved to be the winning run.

"It gave them an opportunity to come out with a lead," Jackson said. "It's a well-pitched ballgame on both parts. It's who can make the least amount of mistakes, and they capitalized on a mistake."

That's the kind of game it was, with both teams scratching and clawing for each run and Johnson resorting to a rare suicide squeeze call to produce his team's only tally against Anibal Sanchez (who improved to 8-0 in 19 career starts against the Nationals).

With Desmond standing on third base and one out in the fifth, Johnson gave the squeeze sign to third-base coach Bo Porter, who relayed it to Brown. The 26-year-old outfielder was in a big-league lineup for the first time, and to that point his brief career stat line including zero hits in five at-bats and three strikeouts.

Brown had never been asked to drop a squeeze bunt in his life, so his first thought was to make sure he correctly interpreted Porter's sign.

"Yesterday and today, Bo was going over the signs with me," Brown said. "I didn't do too well passing the test. I was kind of hoping that I saw it right."

Brown indeed saw it right, and he executed the bunt to perfection, recording his first career RBI in the process.

Little did the Nationals know that would be their only run of a frustrating night against a tough opponent.

"Edwin pitched a heck of a game to the only team in the NL East with a healthy lineup," Desmond said. "Pretty good game. It was a fun game to play in. Obviously it was a tough loss, but we showed a lot out there."


Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_For_Me said...

Hard to get too hard on Bryce. Looking at the replay, he only chased one pitch out of the zone in that at-bat. Espi has been swinging at balls bouncing in the dirt all season long.

rabbit34 said...

Gotta score runs. Gotta score runs. Harper should be batting fourth behind Zimmerman. Drop Laroche to fifth. I'd rather see them pitch around Zimmerman to get to Harper than the other way around. Harper makes better contact and more often. The Marlins look real good. They will probably win the division this year, the Nats next year. And, that's it in a nut shell.

bobfromalexandria said...

Good piece, Mark.
Bryce sounds like a kid when after the game he's more concerned about mising three pitches in a row rather than questioning whether he should have swung at all. He tried to go to the game, rather than let the game go to him. In that situation a walk was as good as a hit. He's a great player and exciting but he still has stuff to learn.

baseballswami said...

It's the nl east. The team that wins it will be the team that makes the fewest mental mistakes . All 5 teams have a chance. Welcome to the roller coaster ride.

Gonat said...

Unfortunately this "failures of execution" has become a recurring theme even in Wins.

The one guy who executed perfectly was Corey Brown. Textbook execution of the suicide squeeze.

NatsJack in Florida said...

Bobfromalex.....yep... I thought the same thing when he went after the first two pitches after 3 walks. He wanted to force something to happen rather than let the game come to him. But he is a quick read and he'll know better next time.

AndesAngle said...

I like the fact that Davey Johnson is aggressive. It doesn't always work but it is still worth a try.
The Nats have stranded way too many runners this year and in the past. But, it looks like the Nats are improving despite the fact that Werth and Morse are out with injuries. Last night failed in the 8th because a rookie, who doesn't play like a rookie, made a rookie mistake. So what! This team is going to get better. The future is so bright for this team.

Go Nats!

Jimmy said...

It's important to remember that those first two pitches to Harper would have been called strikes, regardless of whether he swung or not. My guess is folks would just as, if not more upset with him starting that at bat 0-2 looking.

Maybe he didn't know that was going to be the case with the first pitch. But his strength is being aggressive, and you've got a pitcher desperate to throw a strike, who just walked the bases loaded (throwing 8 of his last 9 for balls). An aggressive hitter is looking for that meatball down the middle. Harper got it, but failed to execute. I'm OK with letting him swing in that situation.

Nats are playing great baseball considering the plague of injuries they're still dealing with. Marlins are the only healthy team in the NL East. They aren't the best, but if Miami takes the division you'd be better served looking at the DL report than the usual stats.

NatsJack in Florida said...

The aggressiveness on the first two pitches trapped him in to going after the third that was out of the zone. I'm only pointing out the learning experience available, knowing full well he got it.

ehay2k said...

From the "Things that make you go Hmmm..." department: I noticed Bryce sitting next to Eckstein for quite some time earlier in the game. They must have been working on "improving" his approach at the plate.

NatsLady said...

Has Mikey played the OF yet, or will he just pinch hit? Who will go down, Maldonado if Flores is good to go? Congrat to Solano on his hit.

natsfan1a said...

NL, I believe that Morse was DH last night. He's supposed to appear in tonight's P-Nats game as well.

Second the congrats for Solano. Atta way!

fast eddie said...

I'm beginning to realize how good the Marlins' pitching is. Sanchez is 8-0 against us in his career, Josh Johnson (going tonight) is 7-0, and we haven't faced Buerhle yet. The bullpen looks as good as ours.
The Fish will be the team to beat in our division.

Gonat said...

fast eddie, see I think the Nats will be the team to beat once all the parts come back together.

bowdenball said...

fast eddie said...

"I'm beginning to realize how good the Marlins' pitching is. Sanchez is 8-0 against us in his career, Josh Johnson (going tonight) is 7-0, and we haven't faced Buerhle yet. The bullpen looks as good as ours.

The Fish will be the team to beat in our division."

I agree that they're a good team, but I think you give them too much credit ... and ignore the fact that regularly beating the Nats from 2006-2011 was hardly an impressive feat!

The Marlins pitching staff- rotation or bullpen- is not on the same level as ours. Even though they get to pitch in that gigantic ballpark, our staff still has better numbers across the board. Don't get me wrong, it's an above average rotation, but there's no ace in there unless Johnson can return to his pre-injury form. And he sure hasn't yet, with a 1.55 WHIP on the season.

Their bullpen looked good against our relatively impotent offense the last couple days, but they've been kind of a mess all year until now. They're 9th in the NL in bullpen ERA despite the obviously pitcher-friendly park. They've struck out 24 fewer batters than our bullpen while walking 3 more. And that's with them at 100% and us missing Storen and Lidge.

They have a much more potent offense than us so I think they're a legitimate contender, but from a pitching standpoint they can't compete with us. Remember, they got to duck Strasburg and Gio this series, got the Nats on zero rest on Monday, and are red-hot at the moment.

Manassas Nats' Fan said...

Harper's aggressiveness will pay off more often than most batter's passiveness.

Had he got a hold of one of the first two instead of just missing, no one would be complaining.

I find taking a third strike much more aggravating than swinging at three and missing only one.

I did post in another thread we are now .225 RISP which is about .020 behind overall average, which means our hitters have not produced in the clutch compared to the non clutch. Tonight I will find out what their average is with no one on.

Manassas Nats' Fan said...

According to what I found out Bernadina and Lombardozzi have the best average with RISP. Ankiel is better than all other starters except Lombardozzi and LaRoche.

A DC Wonk said...

It's important to remember that those first two pitches to Harper would have been called strikes, regardless of whether he swung or not.

Indeed -- when you're about the best hitter on the team, you don't like "right over the plate" pitches go by. No reason to put yourself in a hole. The problem wasn't that he didn't take those pitches, the problem -- as Harper himself explained -- was that he swung at pitches that were indeed over the plate and didn't put them into play.

FWIW, Harper now has the highest SLG on the team.

I was going to conclude with "not bad for a 19 year old."

But, historically speaking, this is totally fracking unbelievably awesome for a 19 year old. The fact is, only Mel Ott (HOFer, and who was _not_ a rookie at 19) had a better year at age 19 than Harper is now (presuming, of course, that Harper can keep up with what he's already been doing).

The K last night is part of "growing pains" -- but we've had remarkably few of them from Bryce compared to the positives he has already brought to the team.

Harper should be batting fourth behind Zimmerman.

I think 3rd or 4th is in his future . . . but not quite yet. There _is_ an advantage to guaranteeing he bats in the first inning. (Remember, Babe Ruth batted third, not fourth! Granted, he had Lou Gehrig behind him ;-) -- but the Babe had a bit more power)

JD said...

I think we're over analyzing this. The pitcher walked the bases loaded so it made sense that he would groove one to avoid falling behind again and he did. Harper just missed a couple of pitches that he will normally hit hard and in the future he will succeed more often than not.

Soul Possession, My PFB Hitterish Sofa said...

I think we're over analyzing this.

It is our Way.

baseballswami said...

This year has been a really different fan year for me - obsessed with the standings and winning and what the other teams in the division are doing. Much more stressful than losing a lot, but fun, too! One thing I have realized, though, is that all of the injuries have given us a close-up look at the organizational depth. Some of these guys were just names that barely registered with me and now I know who they are and what they can do. We also have seen which of the veterans are never going to be any better, who can close, who can't. Lots of information has been produced on the field. We got a much earlier look at Harper, which has been eye-popping. We have seen Lombardozzi when he plays regularly. We know Flo is still an everyday catcher.And this is after dealing four good prospects? How in the world have we kept up this high-wire act? The depth is off the charts and seems to just keep on going. That being said, I would love to see the trend reverse at some point and start getting people back. Might take my suspended game ticket and go see Mikey again - he wants to play the field, I hear. Go Nats!

Theophilus T. S. said...

(Distracted down another path . . ..) Somebody posted on here a couple of days ago that Leon is due back "in two weeks." Where did that come from?

Further, someone else speculated that the Nats would carry three catchers indefinitely. Source? Speaking about high-wire acts, how would they walk that one while carrying a 12-man pitching staff?

Just askin' . . ..

JamesFan said...

Both teams got a well-pitched game; their hitting was better than ours. I agree that the Fish will be the team to beat in September. We have better pitching--despite the dominance by Sanchez and Johnson. They have better hitting. Somehow they have the psychological edge on the Nats. We need to shake that off.

Jackson was great last night.

JD said...

Matt Purke is starting for Hagerstown today. Good luck Matt and let's blow through these low levels quickly.

JD said...

While on the prospect topic; Brian Goodwin and Alex Meyer should be dominating low A ball but they are not. Goodwin is just back from an injury so we need to give him more time but these 2 should really be through this level and onto at least high A ball fairly quickly if they are real prospects.

Mathew Skole has been the best hitter in Hagerstown but is also a bit old (turning 23 in July) for that level. I would like to see him in Harrisburg in the 2nd half.

There's not much in Potomac this year. The Rendon injury robbed them of their marquis player. Harrisburg has a couple of fringe prospects: Eury Perez is just 22 and is holding his own but is not really distinguishing himself, Jeff Mandel is a maybe and Dan Rosenblum has been lights out until his last start which was shaky; his upside is probably Tom Milone which isn't bad.

Syracuse is made up of AAAA veterans with the best players already up in DC. Tylet Moore is back and should play every day.

Ghost Of Steve M. said...

JD, thanks. I really liked what I saw with Purke during Spring Training. A few mechanical things that he will work out such as not tipping pitches by changing your arm slot.

The kid already has an arsenal of pitches, stay healthy and listen to your Coaches.

Ghost Of Steve M. said...

JD, when the Nats drafted Alex Meyer I saw him initially as a reliever as he has mastered 2 pitches fastballs and slider which is great for college and to be a reliever, not great for a starter when you lack pinpoint accuracy. He has also been erratic with his control.

To be a top starter you need at least 3 plus pitches, control, and stamina.

Gonat said...

JD, Skole has lingered too long. He has to get up to High A and AA to see what he really has.

JD said...

Steve and Gonat,

I agree with you. You don't want to give up on a young pitcher as a starter so quickly but he may well end up as a reliever.


When someone is almost 23 and is still in low A there's a very small window to consider him a prospect. That's why I think Skole needs to move to AA for the 2nd half skipping Potomac altogether.

Soul Possession, My PFB Hitterish Sofa said...

The Marquis de Rendon. I like it!

JaneB said...

Harper learns fast. Anyone who can decide, on the fly, that he needs to bat like Ichiro, will make the adjustment NatsJack is talking about.
Like Swami, I'm finding myself focused in standings and injuries in our division (and elsewhere) like never before. Wondering if these guys get banged up more than they did a generation ago, or if we are just more aware of it, what with the interwebz and all. But they are facing more super fast pitching more often, I'd bet. That has to take its toll. Except in the league where they cheat and never make the pitchers bat. And what joy we've gotten out if our pitchers batting!!

Drew said...

Rendon would be Potomac's marquee player -- up in lights, as on a movie marquee.)

(But he does play on de sod....)

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