Tuesday, May 18, 2010

One BB, one K lead to loss

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Drew Storen's debut couldn't offset Craig Stammen's rough first or Adam Dunn's strikeout.
ST. LOUIS -- Years from now, we'll probably remember this as Drew Storen's first major-league appearance, an impressive relief outing that featured a gutsy strikeout of Matt Holliday on a 3-2 fastball, with Albert Pujols lurking in the on-deck circle.

But tonight -- Storen's nice debut aside -- it's hard to overlook the two key plate appearances that more than anything else produced this 6-2 loss to the Cardinals.

Craig Stammen's two-out walk of Holliday in the bottom of the first opened the floodgates for the Cardinals, who proceeded to score four runs and jump out to an early lead. And Adam Dunn's strikeout on a 3-2 fastball at his eyelids in the top of the seventh killed the Nationals' last, best chance at rallying to win.

Change the outcome or either or both of those plate appearances, and we're talking about an inspiring Nats win right now instead of a fourth-straight loss.

Let's begin with the first-inning walk, because it set the tone for the entire evening. Stammen cruised through the game's first two batters, getting Felipe Lopez to ground out and then striking out Ryan Ludwick. Even with Holliday at the plate and Pujols -- or, as Jim Riggleman referred to him: "Babe Ruth" -- in the on-deck circle, Stammen didn't appear to be in any trouble.

But when his 3-2 fastball to Holliday came in a little low, Stammen knew he had just committed a cardinal sin.

"I was kicking myself for having a two-out walk," the right-hander said. "And once that happens, you've got to face Albert, and he's the best hitter in the league."

Pujols wasn't the one who got Stammen. His single up the middle only prolonged the inning. But that in itself became a problem, because Stammen couldn't finish it off. Colby Rasmus singled in a run. David Freese tripled in two more. Yadier Molina brought home one more with a single. Just like that, the Nationals trailed 4-0 and faced an uphill battle the rest of the night.

"When you put your team in a hole like that, it's kind of hard to battle back," Stammen said.

The Nationals did battle, though, and made a game of it. Stammen followed up his disastrous first inning with five scoreless frames. And the offense pushed across two runs in the fifth to make it 4-2.

That set up Dunn's golden opportunity in the seventh. After Mike Morse popped out with runners on second and third and one out -- a weak at-bat itself -- Riggleman initially sent Alberto Gonzalez to the plate to face left-hander Trever Miller.

Thus began the chess match between Riggleman and Tony La Russa, two of the most-astute in-game managers in baseball. La Russa called upon right-hander Jason Motte from the bullpen. Riggleman countered with Dunn, who was out of the lineup for the second straight day with flu-like symptoms but was available to pinch-hit. It looked like a brilliant managing job by Riggleman, who managed to get his best power hitter up against a right-handed reliever.

But Dunn couldn't deliver. After working the count full, and with Motte trying to pitch around him, the big slugger inexplicably swung and whiffed at a high fastball well out of the strike zone.

Dunn apparently didn't realize just how bad a pitch it was. When he returned to the clubhouse, he asked Mike Rizzo (who had been watching on TV) whether the pitch was high.

"Uh, yeah," Rizzo said. "Are you kidding?"

"Was it that bad?" Dunn asked.

"If I'm putting together a video of the worst swings in your career, that's the first one I'm showing," Rizzo responded.

The two could joke about it because Dunn has one of the keenest batting eyes in baseball. That whiff was so out of character, it was almost hard to believe Dunn was the culprit.

But that strikeout killed whatever chance the Nationals had at rallying to win this game. They went down quietly in the eighth, and when Matt Capps gave up two more runs in the bottom of the inning, their fate had been sealed.

That's the fine line between a nice win and a four-game losing streak. Now, the Nationals have to try to beat Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter to avoid heading home in a five-game funk, with their record back at .500.

"It doesn't get any easier," Ryan Zimmerman said. "But we've been playing good baseball. We've just been losing some close games. That's how it goes. You can't go win every one-run game all season. We're not panicking. We feel good about what we have going. We'll come out tomorrow and try to split here."

Had only two plate appearances featured different outcomes tonight, the Nats might actually be going for a sweep tomorrow instead of hoping to split.


Anonymous said...

Why only the brief discussion of the Morse AB? With only one out that was a more critical moment, and for a guy that all the blowhards around here seem to think is the power hitter that this team is looking for, the guy couldn't manage the AB to put something into the outfield? I'm so tired of hearing how Maxwell, Morse, etc. are the answer if only Riggleman would give them a shot. He gave Morse his shot tonight...and Dunn gets the blame?

Souldrummer said...

I don't know about this one. I have a hard time putting so much of the responsibility on Dunner. The man was kind of sick and he's going to strike out some. For me, the Morse at bat was worse. All he needed was a sac fly to bring us to within a run and he flamed out. The fundamental stuff and the defense was more of a problem for me. Willie Harris missed two tough plays. The Cardinals made some tough plays. We did not get the guy in with 2 men in scoring position and less than 2 outs. Dunn's not going to be able to save you but so much. For Morse, who is trying to justify his spot on the roster, he's got to give us productive pinch hit at bats because he's a lousy defender. A pinch hitter with some pop would be a big addition to the club and you hope Morse can be it.

Anonymous said...

The clock is ticking on Stammens. He ain't no wide eyed rookie anymore although he acts like it. He looks scared out there. He pitches scared also. He's a sinker ball pitcher. Bust them at the knees, mix in some sliders and let the chips fall where they may. The old saying of "pitch to contact" He's out there nibbling, falling behind every batter and he eventually gets rocked. Maybe I should be pitching coach.


A DC Wonk said...

Does anyone know what Riggleman said to Storen when he visited him in the middle of an at bat last night (pictured above)?

Doc said...

If Dunn was as sick as portrayed at the beginning of the game, I'm not sure he should have been batting. The real flu does leave you weak, as we all have experienced.

natsfan1a said...

I would tend to agree with Doc re. the flu (after all, who would know better than a physician? ;-)). Heck, I'm still rather wobbly after a week-long bout with it.

I went to bed before the game ended (can't stay up that late), but I did get to see Storen's debut. I was impressed with how he came back after the plunking. (Oh, and I like the flat-brimmed cap, too.)

Mark Zuckerman said...

You guys make a good point about Morse, and at the time when he popped out, I said to myself: "That's a terrible at-bat." But I chose to focus on the Dunn strikeout both because of the chess match between Riggleman and La Russa that set it up, and because of the uncharacteristic way Dunn chased that 3-2 fastball out of the zone.

FOTB said...

Best news from an otherwise lousy game was Storen. When he was asked after the game about how he would pitch to Matt Holliday, his answer: "I just trusted Pudge." That is a very smart young pitcher.

NatsNut said...

Way to keep me laughing, Mark.

"'If I'm putting together a video of the worst swings in your career, that's the first one I'm showing,' Rizzo responded."

I'm also dying to know what Riggleman said to Storen when he went out.

Mark Zuckerman said...

I think Riggleman's message to Storen was essentially: "Relax. Throw strikes. Trust your stuff."

natsfan1a said...

Also, "breathe through your eyelids." :-)

Anonymous said...

I loved it when Storen clipped that guy on his hand. Don't lean out on me baby!!

Richard said...

Thank you Anon#1. I, too, am tried of right field angst and feel Maxwell certainly has had his shot. He's currently struggling in Syracuse. I hope the Nats continue doing the obvious and kep Bernadina in right field every day and not worry about Harris' (or Morse's) ABs. All the MASN announcers keep harping "someone's got to win the RF job." Someone has -- offensively and defensively. Let's see what 500 ABs looks like. ... And while I'm at it I'll question Riggs' revolving line-up, too. I can't help feeling the inconsistency re who's in the line up and where they bat affects offensive production. But like Storen re Pudge, I'm hoping Riggs "knows what he's doing."

Anonymous said...

While watching the game, I groaned more at the Morse failure with less than two outs. That said, the Dunn strikeout was ugly. I'd lay part of the blame on the flu. And I was also bothered by the failure by a pitcher to lay down a sacrifice at a key moment in the game.

Sec314 said...

The called Strike on Stammen at the plate was also a huge disappointment. Eckstein apparently thought so too!

NV said...

Why is Morse #1 off the bench in the most important situation of the game when he was pinch hit for by Willie Harris a day earlier?

Anonymous said...

Yeah Morse's first at bat looked bad. The second almost a hit but Pujols managed to make the play on it to end the game.

You can point the finger at Morse and many here are good at this: but the real culprit lies at the top of the lineup. Willie Harris batting all of .179? What is Riggs thinking. The Cardinals announcers made a point of stating numerous times ***how lost Willie looked in right field***. He can play left but not center or right at this point. Believe it or not I assume that is why he was replaced with Morse.

Cristan Guzman is his favorite slot, he who must play went 0 FOR 4! And we all know he never walks. Zimmerman 0 for 4. Willingham 0 for 3 with a walk. He, and not Dunn, leads the team with walks. Dunn the now infamous 0 FOR 1. In this game no table setting and the heart of the line up continues to sputter. The only time they've hit on all cylinders this year was in the rain and mud bowl game.

MORSE is not a starter in the heart of the lineup. He is not a table setter at the top? This game is on Riggleman and his inane batting order not on Morse. Imagine if he had place the 4 for 4 Desmond close to the top, say at #2 or #1? Would things have been different?

NatinBeantown said...

These were both critical moments, where you could sense their importance at the time. But I blame Stammen for nothing. 4 Runs against that lineup is a pretty good outing--it's the 2 measly runs off of Lohse that is unforgivable, especially following games where we've let a rusty Francis and Hammel shut us down. This lineup needs another consistent bat.

Second, where are all the folks who jumped all over Dunn for not being aggressive enough on the called third strikes weeks ago? He came out swinging in a clutch PH appearance, and you have to think he was being aggressive to not have another late-inning backward K.

Anonymous said...

Right field is not the problem. Its the table setters at the top starting with Morgan and inconsistency in the heart of the lineup other than Zimmerman. You shouldn't have to rely on Pudge to do this for your team.

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