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.