With one out in the ninth Tuesday night, Ian Desmond tried to check his swing on Santiago Casilla’s two-strike breaking ball in the dirt. Home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt called Desmond out without an appeal. It appeared Desmond had held back, and in the batter’s box he fumed.
“As I was turning around to talk to Hunter, I think I took my helmet off, and the first thing that came to my head was, ‘Don’t get thrown from this game because we’re going to tie it up and they’re going to need me,’ ” Desmond said. “It’s a testament in a moment like that that popped into your head. You can’t fake that. I believe in this team. We believed in each other all year long. It’s a hell of a fight. We came up short.”
The Nationals’ comeback never came. But two runs may have been good enough, at least for extra innings, if not for the Giants’ rally in the seventh inning, which happened with the middle of the Nationals’ bullpen on the mound. The seventh-inning became a conflagration as Manager Matt Williams stuck to his script.
Start with the bottom line, not even considering game situations and typical routine and the magnitude of the moment. In the game that ended the Nationals’ season, Williams used five relievers:
Tanner Roark, a fifth starter who won his job in spring training, had excellent season and was pushed to the bullpen by the Nationals’ star-studded rotation; Jerry Blevins, a specialist who emerged an ace against lefties and a dominant force in the season’s final weeks; Matt Thornton, an experienced lefty who excelled after the Nationals added him in August on a waiver claim; Aaron Barrett, a rookie who thrived all season against right-handers and spent August in Class AAA; and Rafael Soriano, a closer for four and a half months who was demoted from his role after a horrendous second half.
Williams left three rendered three pitchers as spectators:
Tyler Clippard, the most consistent setup man in baseball over the previous five years; Drew Storen, the leader in bullpen ERA this season; and Stephen Strasburg, the team’s anointed ace who, by all pregame indications, was available to pitch in any relief role.
Roark and Blevins were successful, and they were the plain choices. Because Gio Gonzalez exited for a pinch hitter, the Nationals needed a long reliever. That’s why Roark is on the roster, and throughout the season he was clearly one of Nationals’ best pitchers.
Blevins got the Nationals’ out of a bases-loaded jam by striking out Brandon Crawford – Williams employed him at just the right time. Blevins even got the Nationals through the sixth, a bonus that, if anything, should have allowed Williams more flexibility late in game.
In the seventh, Williams proved in inflexible. He arrived at his bullpen usage because he stuck with orthodoxy in a moment that demanded urgency. He never considered using Clippard and Storen earlier than usual because he wanted to save them for the eighth and ninth, like he would have in any game in the summer.
“Because those are our seventh-inning guys,” Williams said. “That’s how we set this up. We had two lefties at the top of the inning, and if we got to the righties, we were going to Barrett. That’s what he’s done for us all year long. We’re certainly not going to use our closer in the seventh inning.”
Even within his typical usage, Williams made curious choices. He started the inning with Thornton to face lefties Gregor Blanco and Joe Panik. After Panik singled with one out, Buster Posey came to the plate.
This season, Barrett held right-handed hitters to a .192 average and a .529 OPS. They hit just one home run against him in 112 plate appearances. He had faced Posey twice in the regular season, and Posey went 0 for 2. The pitch Posey fares worst against, according to Pitch FX data, is the slider. That’s Barrett’s calling card.
Williams stuck with Thornton, who had allowed right-handed hitters a .236 average and a .634 OPS. He had faced Posey once in his career and walked him.
Posey roped a single into center to put two runners on base. With one out, Williams called on Barrett to face Pence. He could have tried to coax the game’s final eight outs with Clippard and Storen, right then and there. He could have simply used them for an inning a piece with the knowledge that Strasburg could handle the ninth and several extra innings if the score remained tied.
Instead, Williams put the Nationals’ season hands in the hands of Barrett. He walked Pence on six pitches.
“I thought I made some pretty good pitches, battled back 3-2, and I guess tried to do a little too much there on a 3-2 pitch and ended up walking him,” Barrett said. “I was trying to slow myself down as much as possible. It was a great atmosphere, obviously. I was trying to do a little too much. I didn’t want to walk him there. I was trying to challenge him, but it happened.”
The bases had been loaded, but the score remained tied. The Nationals needed a double play to escape – Williams could have even gone to Craig Stammen, a sinker specialist who mowed through the Giants for three innings in Game 2. But no one was warming. The inning belonged to Barrett.
That remained true even as Pablo Sandoval, a switch hitter, walked to the plate. This season, Barrett allowed lefties to hit .275 with a .750 OPS. As a left-handed batter this season, Sandoval hit .317 with an .824 OPS. In the biggest game of the season, in a tie game with the bases loaded in the seventh inning, the Nationals had that matchup.
Sandoval never had a chance to do damage. Barrett spiked a fastball that bounced past Wilson Ramos, and the go-ahead run crossed. Barrett sailed an intentional ball past Ramos as he tried to finish the at-bat against Sandoval.
The ensuing review gave Soriano enough time to warm up, and Barrett’s night ended after he walked both batters he faced. Williams had used all his lefties, and so he brought in Soriano – who had held lefties to a .218 average with a .614 OPS this season – to face Brandon Belt. Soriano retired Belt on one pitch.
Soriano’s success against left-handers begs the question: Even if you’re intent on saving Clippard and Storen, why not just have him face Sandoval?
“Aaron’s been doing that job for us all year long,” Williams said. “He’s a strikeout guy. He’s got the ability to strike that guy out. Unfortunately, it was a wild pitch. That happens. But he’s been our guy that we’ve gone to in the middle of orders with every team that we’ve played all year to get a big strikeout or get a big out.”
Barrett had a great year, and the Nationals used him in big spots from opening day, when he pitched a scoreless ninth in a tie game. But the reason Barrett received those spots during the year was because in the flow of the regular season, bullpen roles are meaningful and using your best relievers in the highest leverage spots every day would tax them to the point of ineffectiveness. In an elimination game, those concerns fly out the window.
The Nationals did not lose the series solely on Williams’s bullpen strategy. Far from it. They lost the series because their bats disappeared. The Nationals hit .164/.222/.258. Bryce Harper delivered four of their extra-base hits. Anthony Rendon swatted seven of their 26 hits. The middle of their lineup no-showed – Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth combined to go 2 for 35 with four walks and no-extra base hits.
“I wish we could have a re-do on this whole series,” LaRoche said. “I feel like we didn’t see the team during the last few days that we had for six months. Just didn’t click. We had stretches during the year where we’d go through this. Lose a few games but we’d find a way to pick it right back up. In a five-game series, you don’t have time to do that.”
The playoffs, indeed, are not like the regular season. It requires drastic measures. It requires different strategy than the convention that fuels a team for 162 games. It requires a different approach than what Williams used in Game 4.
FROM THE POST
Anthony Rendon showed no nerves in his first playoff appearance, James Wagner writes.
Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche came up small in the NLDS, James Wagner writes.
The Giants leaned on their experience, Rick Maese writes.
One bad curveball did in the Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw, Barry Svrluga writes.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY