The final two innings of Monday’s gut-wrenching walk-off loss to the Marlins exposed the various intricacies of the Nationals bullpen and Matt Williams’s reasoning behind them.
Williams has given relievers certain roles and he often rigidly sticks to them. In save situations, Drew Storen is the seventh-inning guy, Tyler Clippard gets the eighth and Rafael Soriano is the closer. But because Clippard had pitched in two of the previous three games, including 21 pitches on Sunday, Williams didn’t want to use Clippard.
So with a 6-2 lead, he turned to Ross Detwiler to face the bottom of the Marlins order in the eighth, which included a right-hander, a right-handed pinch hitter and a left-handed leadoff hitter. It also wasn’t a save situation. The situation was of moderate importance and Williams hasn’t used Detwiler in many high-leverage situations. Right-handers have also hit Detwiler well; a .288 average.
After Detwiler gave up two hits, a run and notched two outs, Williams handed the now-save situation to Storen and asked him to face Giancarlo Stanton with one runner on. Storen struck out Stanton on four pitches.
Because it was a save situation, Williams then handed the ninth inning to Soriano. After the game, Williams admitted that Soriano had received a fair amount of work of late — pitching in two of the previous three games — but Soriano himself said he felt fine and his arm wasn’t tired. (“He’s been pitching a lot lately,” Williams said.)
Soriano turned a three-run lead into a tie after giving up three hits, walking a batter and hitting another. With one out, Soriano still had the chance to get out of the jam with a double play. Marcell Ozuna was at first, the Nationals had a 6-5 lead and Adeiny Hechavarria was batting. But with a 2-2 count, Soriano tried to get Hechavarria to chase a slider in the dirt. Instead, he uncorked a wild pitch and Ozuna took second. The double play was off and Soriano needed a strikeout.
Hechavarria then drilled a high slider that didn’t break much into center field for the game-tying triple. Williams let Soriano face right-handed pinch hitter Donovan Solano, and Soriano has held right-handers to a .205 average this season. The game was already tied and left-handed Christian Yelich followed. Bringing in Craig Stammen or Aaron Barrett in to face only Solano was perhaps as good as letting Soriano do it. Well, except for the fact that Soriano was clearly laboring and his pitch count sat at 25.
Soriano then plunked Solano on his second pitch of the at-bat and Williams finally took him out.
With runners at first and third and only one out, Blevins faced Yelich, a difficult situation but a favorable matchup. Blevins has held left-handed batters to a .121 average, best on the team. He struck out Yelich but then came lefty-masher Jeff Baker. With Clippard unavailable, Williams had only Barrett and Stammen available. Would he bring either in just to get the final out of the inning? Would he use three relievers in one inning? And if he did and the game went to extra innings, the bullpen would be left with only reliever.
Blevins held right-handers to a .190 average last season and has had success against hitters from both sides of the plate in the past. But this season, right-handers have hit him well.
“We’re not playing for a double play in the ninth with Jerry against a lefty and we have to take our shot with Baker and he put a good swing on it,” Williams said.
Blevins left a first-pitch change-up slightly up, and Baker smashed it for the game-winning hit. The perfect storm occurred. Soriano’s rough outing, Williams’s decisions and Blevins’s troubles with right-handers all helped decide the outcome.
Closers, especially ones enjoying a stellar season like Soriano, are afforded a long leash. But Williams was aware of how much Soriano has thrown recently and an argument could be made he left Soriano in too long. From the first few batters, it was evident Soriano didn’t have the right stuff and couldn’t adjust.
But perhaps Williams could have left Storen in the game to start the ninth inning. He threw only four pitches and he could have lightened Soriano’s workload in the ninth. Soriano could have backed him up if he ran into any trouble. Storen would have faced right-hander Casey McGehee, left-hander Garrett Jones and Ozuna, a right-hander. Storen has pitched tremendously this season but has been perhaps underused. He has appeared in 40 games but logged only 34 1/3 innings. Williams understandably wants to give relievers defined roles, but he could have bent the rules to allow Storen to start the ninth.
The underlying issues of the inning, however, could also inform the Nationals’ future. Despite posting the fourth best bullpen ERA (2.76) in the majors, the Nationals have been looking to bolster their relief corps ahead of Thursday’s trade deadline. There are no glaring weaknesses to the bullpen but there are some quirks to keep in mind.
Blevins has held left-handers to a .121 average but right-handers have hit .324 off him. Williams has even referred to him as a left-handed specialist, even though the Nationals touted him as a full-inning left-hander after acquiring him in the offseason. Detwiler has similar splits (tough on left-handers, not as much against right-handers).
Barrett has done well against right-handers (.192) but not left-handers (.317) in his first major league season. Stammen, Storen, Clippard and Soriano have been successful against hitters from both sides of the plate. Perhaps General Manager Mike Rizzo could look to improve the minor weaknesses of the group.