Having restored faith in their season over the weekend, the Washington Nationals endured a Sunday afternoon that may have made them ponder the fairness of their chosen profession. The Nationals’ 5-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds prevented a sweep and replaced the relief of three straight victories with frustration. Starting pitcher Ross Detwiler fell victim to a series of small calamities, first baseman Adam LaRoche stumbled deeper into a morass of a slump and a funky, left-handed rookie chucked aspirin tablets at them for six innings. The Nationals might as well have stayed in their clubhouse and tried putting toothpaste back in the tube.
Beneath an overcast sky at Nationals Park, Reds lefty Tony Cingrani overpowered the Nationals for six scoreless innings with his three-quarter delivery and sneaky, mid-90s fastball. As Cingrani collected 11 strikeouts, including four in a single inning, Detwiler suffered paper cuts and stubbed toes. He allowed 11 hits, 10 of them singles, four of which did not venture past the infield.
Despite 14 strikeouts, the Nationals afforded themselves chances to roar back into the game, and each threat led mostly to more frustration. They stranded eight men on base, went 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position and saw one rally end when a botched line drive in left field led to Anthony Rendon getting thrown out at home plate. The Nationals moved on to a four-game showdown with the Atlanta Braves, happy only to be finished with whatever transpired Sunday.
“It happens,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “He pitched great, and your luck turns against you.”
Detwiler entered with a 1.38 ERA, then allowed four runs, three earned, in five innings. From the first inning, the Reds exploited Detwiler’s pitch-to-contact ethos with a mix of good hitting and good luck. The opposing pitcher rolled a single off third base. Corky Miller, a backup catcher, part-time Class AAA first base coach and full-time walrus impersonator, singled off of Detwiler to lead off the fourth. Miller scored when Rendon made a diving stop then fired across the diamond, only for his throw to pull LaRoche’s left foot a few inches off the base.
The game turned on a bad pitch, though, not bad luck. Joey Votto’s double put men on second and third with one out in the first inning. Detwiler fought Brandon Phillips to a 2-2 count, then fired a fastball, “right down the middle,” he said. Phillips smoked it past him and into center field. In an instant, the Reds led 2-0.
“I got to make better pitches at the right times,” Detwiler said. “I didn’t have a good feel for anything today.”
Detwiler employed the same all-fastball attack that made him one of baseball’s most effective pitchers in April. Manager Davey Johnson implored Detwiler to mix in more off-speed pitches on days like Sunday, when the opposing lineup puts so many balls in play.
“When Det is not really sharp, that’s going to happen,” Johnson said. “They had a bunch of hits, but he battled, kept us in the ballgame, gave us a chance to win. It’s times like this where he needs to use his whole arsenal. But he’ll get there.”
Said Detwiler: “It’s easy to say after you see the result. Obviously, I want to change every pitch that was a hit into something else. If I would have known that was going to happen, I would have.”
Between innings, pitching coach Steve McCatty and catcher Kurt Suzuki usually go over with Detwiler what adjustments he needs to make. Sunday, they kept telling him, “Keep going. It’s going to change. It’s going to change.”
It never did, at least not Sunday. Detwiler held the Reds scoreless in his fifth and final inning, but not before Jay Bruce managed to single on a masse shot over the pitcher’s mound and Xavier Paul added a broken-bat single.
“Another positive you can take out,” Detwiler said. “They have to go buy new bats.”
The early outburst gave the Reds more than they needed behind Cingrani, who may well be an emerging star. The Reds selected him in the third round of the 2011 draft out of Rice, where he played alongside Rendon. In his minor league career, Cingrani struck out 11.8 batters per nine innings. Before the Reds called him up from Class AAA Louisville to replace injured ace Johnny Cueto, he whiffed 26 in 141 / 3 innings.
“He has that motion,” Rendon said. “That’s what he thrives on. He has that little bit of deception. The ball jumps on you a little bit more.”
Sunday, he mowed down the Nationals. The first trip through the lineup, Cingrani retired all nine hitters and struck out four. He struck out leadoff hitter Denard Span to start the fourth, but Span scooted to first because of a wild pitch. Cingrani lost a no-hitter when Espinosa doubled into the right field corner.
After Bryce Harper struck out swinging at a chin-high fastball, Jayson Werth’s walk loaded the bases with one out. Suddenly, the Nationals were down 4-0 but very much in the game. Desmond hacked and missed a 94 mph fastball for strike three.
Up came LaRoche, whom Johnson had moved down to sixth in the lineup for only the second time since the start of 2012. A notorious slow starter and streak hitter, LaRoche entered Sunday with no hits and 10 strikeouts in his last 22 at-bats. Cingrani struck him out in their first encounter in three pitches.
Now, with the bases loaded, he blazed a 1-2, 96 mph fastball over the outside corner. LaRoche took it. Home plate umpire Sam Holbrook called strike three. LaRoche turned and barked at Holbrook, waving his left hand, another show of irritation.
“Some guys, you try to hope for the double play,” said Miller, the Reds catcher. “But with Tony, you hope for the strikeout. That’s the type of guy he is.”
LaRoche’s glove had kept the game nominally competitive, leading to rally-killing double plays in the second and third. But his bat kept letting the Nats down. In the eighth inning, LaRoche popped up against reliever Jonathan Broxton with two outs to leave another runner stranded. He ended the day 0 for his last 26 with 13 strikeouts.
“I’ve got one of two options here,” LaRoche said. “I can keep my head up, keep swinging, or pack up and head home. I’m not ready to go home yet.”