The Nationals’ astonishing inability to come back

Kathy Willens/AP
Bobby Parnell closes out Anthony Rendon and the Nats, a common theme when the opposing closer comes in. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Last night, when Zack Greinke poked an RBI single into right field in the second inning, he had unwittingly done sleep-deprived fans back in Washington a favor. The run had given the Dodgers a 2-0 lead, and even though the Nationals had seven innings with which to work, the deficit bordered on insurmountable given their track record this season.

The Nationals offense has been bad in many ways this season. It has been its worst after the Nationals fall behind and late in games, when they are facing an opponent’s best relievers. The Nationals offensive malaise is bleak across the board; their struggles late in games and inability to stage come backs has been astonishing.

Once the Nationals fall behind, feel free to hit the sack. The largest deficit they have overcome in a victory is two. They are 4-9 when trailing after one inning, 1-12 when trailing after the fourth and 0-16 when they’re behind after six innings.

They don’t adjust when a starter is dealing against them, and they have been overwhelmed by opposing bullpens. Against relievers this season, the Nationals are hitting .200/.262/.315 with 109 strikeouts and 33 walks. Take last night – the Nationals faced Greinke, a starter on a strict pitch count who came out after 5 1/3 innings. In 4 2/3 against the Dodgers’ bullpen, they pushed no runs across.

That was against several middle relievers. Against late-inning relievers? Set the alarm and  turn over. In innings seven through nine, the Nationals have hit .190/.246/.283 and scored 22 runs. (For context, the league has hit .237/.305/.355 – back-end relievers are tough to hit, but not that tough.) In the final third of the game, they have been outscored, 38-22, this year.

The ninth inning has been a special kind of offensive mess. In 28 ninth innings this year, the Nationals have scored two runs. T-W-O two. They have been overpowered by the back of bullpens and absolutely dominated by closers. In 13 games this year, the Nationals’ opponent recorded a save. The results in those circumstances are staggering.

The Nationals have scored zero – a fat donut – runs against opposing closers. Those 13 games have produced seven 1-2-3 innings, plus two other instances in which a closer worked a perfect portion of an inning.

Against the pitchers who earned the save, the Nationals are 3 for 39 (.077) with 15 strikeouts and one walk. They had not come close to scoring against a closer until last night, when Danny Epsinosa singled off Brandon League (ERA: 5.87) and reached third base. They haven’t produced multiple base runners in any game against a closer.

Did we mention they haven’t won a game when trailing after six innings? Or that they’ve been outscored, 9-2, in the ninth?

What do these ghastly numbers tell us about the Nationals? Let us resist the urge to question character and clutchness and look deeper. It reveals two things. These Nationals have tended not to handle velocity well, and their pinch hitters, a strength last year, have floundered.

Start with the high-velocity theory. The latter innings tend to be the realm of flame-throwing relievers. Against pitchers classified as “power” pitchers by Baseball-Reference, the Nationals are hitting .201/.263/.318 this year. According to FanGraphs.com, the Nationals have scored 25.7 runs below average against fastballs. Only the Marlins are worst, and the team immediately ahead of them, the White Sox, has been 11.2 runs below average. It’s not close.

When the Nationals have tried to match up late in games, most often they have lost. The Nationals have seven pinch hits, the fewest in the National League, in 51 at-bats (.137). They are one of three teams without a pinch-hit homer and the only team without even a pinch-hit RBI.

If you can’t hit fastballs and you can’t pinch hit, you probably can’t score late in games. And if you can’t score late in games, of course, you can’t come back That is what the Nationals’ colossal late-inning struggle boils down to.

Last year, the Nationals won 12 games after they trailed after six and four when they entered the ninth inning down. It felt like they were always in the game. They weren’t the clutchiest bunch of clutches who ever clutched; those Nationals had stellar pinch hitting and grinded at-bats against quality relievers.

Last night, even with the score 2-1 for most of the game, it felt, somehow, as if it was worse. When they trail this year, the Nationals simply say good night.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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Adam Kilgore · May 16, 2013

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