CINCINNATI — Everything was a mess Sunday night for Henry Rodriguez. His nerves, the slop at his feet, the loaded bases behind him — all of it, in every way, an utter, complete mess, made worse by the man knocking the weighted donut off his bat in the on-deck circle. Walking to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning, already with two home runs and now carrying a chance to end the Washington Nationals’ long, wet and miserable day in the most gut-wrenching fashion, was Joey Votto.
“Cross your fingers there,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “It doesn’t matter who’s on the mound.”
On the mound was Rodriguez, not the version with the golden arm, impeccable control and stoic calm. It was the Rodriguez with jangling nerves and no earthly idea where the ball is headed when it leaves his hand. Off that Rodriguez, Votto clobbered a walk-off grand slam to center field, his third home run of the day sending Rodriguez to his third blown save and the Nationals skulking off the field with a 9-6 loss before 28,361 at Great American Ball Park.
The bitter defeat knocked the Nationals out of first place in the National League East as the hard-charging Atlanta Braves took the lead by half a game, the cherry atop a perverse sundae. Sunday morning, the Nationals learned catcher Wilson Ramos would likely miss the entire season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, perhaps the cruelest blow in a season packed with injuries. They waited out a 3-hour 36-minute rain delay before first pitch. They played through constant rain.
In the end, the Nationals had a quiet clubhouse and a mess of their own to solve: Is Rodriguez still their closer until Drew Storen returns from elbow surgery around mid-July? Manager Davey Johnson answered casually and in the affirmative.
“Yeah,” Johnson said. “He’s still throwing the ball good. It’s inclement weather. He’ll bounce back. It’s a bump on the road.”
Saturday night, Rodriguez had been absolutely dominant, striking out the Reds on 10 pitches. Sunday, the shakiness that led to two previous blown saves returned. He walked two batters, nearly uncorked a game-tying wild pitch and, ultimately, gave up the rocket to center field that won the game for the Reds.
“For me, it’s more mental,” catcher Jesus Flores said. “He puts too much pressure on himself, and he tries to be too perfect in those situations. He just gets in trouble.”
Rodriguez, it seems, either breezes or struggles, and so a leadoff single by Ryan Hanigan portended trouble. Throughout the ninth inning, Rodriguez stared at the mound and kicked at the spot where he landed.
After Miguel Cairo popped up for the second out, with a runner on second, pitching coach Steve McCatty trudged to the mound. He asked Rodriguez if he wanted the grounds crew to shape up the mound. LaRoche later asked the same question. Rodriguez declined.
“I felt like I could do it that way and finish it up,” Rodriguez said through Flores, who translated.
Afterward, though, Rodriguez admitted he let the field conditions affect him.
“I lost control when thinking about the mound,” Rodriguez said through Flores. “I kind of lost my focus.”
Rodriguez walked the strikeout-prone Drew Stubbs to put two men on. With Votto on deck, Rodriguez got ahead of Chris Heisey, 0-2. He then threw him four consecutive balls, two sliders and then two fastballs, none particularly close. Flores would not call another slider — Rodriguez had thrown five, all in the dirt and four of them balls.
“He couldn’t command anything tonight,” Flores said. “He was pretty wild. It’s not the first time. He’s got to keep working on it.”
Said Johnson: “He walked the guys he should have got out.”
He had loaded the bases for Votto, who had drilled two homers off of starter Edwin Jackson and later added a double off the right field wall. “He did what he gets paid a lot of money to do,” Jackson said.
With the count 1-1 on Votto, Rodriguez bounced a 55-foot curveball that, had it skipped past Flores, would have brought home the tying run. Flores blocked it. Votto hit a missile foul on the next pitch. On 2-2, Flores called for an inside fastball.
“That was the best pitch in that situation,” Flores said. “Because he couldn’t command anything else.”
Rodriguez threw the fastball, 96 mph, but down the middle and up rather than inside. Votto unleashed his compact swing, and the ball zoomed on to the grassy berm behind the center field wall. Fireworks shot off, and the Reds dogpiled at home plate. A long flight awaited the Nationals.
“It’s very frustrating,” Rodriguez said. “I have a good game last night, and then come in here tonight, and I couldn’t do my job.”
The Nationals had control all game as their offense continued its recent brush with productivity, belting 16 hits and drawing six walks. They still stranded 14 runners, but they led, 6-3, when Votto drilled a double off Sean Burnett that put runners on second and third with one out.
Burnett responded by striking out Brandon Phillips, swinging at a slider that nearly bounced on the plate. He seemingly extricated himself when Jay Bruce hit a high flyball to right field.
“You assume a popup is an out,” Burnett said.
Bryce Harper, who received 10 stitches above his left eye after his infamous bat-slamming incident Friday night, jogged in to catch the ball. Once the ball soared higher than the seats, Harper could not find it in the wet gloom. He stuck out his arms and ran forward. The ball went over his head and dropped 20 feet behind him.
“I had no clue,” Harper said. “I had no idea. It [stinks] that it happened. There was nothing I could do about it.”
The ball landed close to the warning track as he stood in intermediate right field. Center fielder Rick Ankiel tracked the ball down, and when he flung the ball back to the infield the Nationals led only by one run.
“There’s nothing you can do about it,” Burnett said. “It’s just bad luck.”
The Nationals handed their one-run lead to Rodriguez. The implosion that followed ended a long, bad day. In the team’s locker room, clubbies scraped mud off cleats. Ramos hobbled to the bus on crutches, and bullpen catcher Nilson Robledo rolled his suitcase for him.
“All losses are tough,” Johnson said. “That one especially.”