CLEVELAND — Dusty Baker said he was “lost for words” after Tuesday night’s 7-6 loss to the Indians, which is as telling a statement as can be made. The Nationals manager rarely runs out of things to say.
But games led, then lost, in the bottom of the ninth sting more somehow. Better to have led and lost than to never have led at all? Maybe, on some level. But losses like these somehow always seem to turn into pivot points and have redirected the Nationals the wrong way at this time of year.
Tuesday night’s game was Jonathan Papelbon’s third blown save in 22 chances, which is not a horrible ratio by any means, but is not a comforting one either. Their bullpen has ranked atop the league in ERA and other categories for most of the season. It has been good, but recent October history suggests the playoffs require great.
The Nationals still have time to trade for bullpen help. The trade deadline is Monday, and they have already taken to the chase. They pursued Aroldis Chapman, but the Chicago Cubs outbid them. The Cubs paid with their top prospect, a big leaguer, and two less-heralded youngsters to pry the hard-throwing left-hander away for two months of service. The Nationals, who are not willing to part with any of their top four prospects right now, would not offer so much.
But the Yankees are said to be taking offers on another hard-throwing left-hander, Andrew Miller, who has two years of team control left. If the price on Chapman was high, the price on Miller will be even higher. Even though he is not a rental like Chapman, the Nationals do not seem likely to pay it.
“If they want [what the Cubs paid] for Chapman,” said a person with direct knowledge of the Nationals’ thinking, “I would imagine Miller is out of [the Nationals’] price range.”
If the Yankees wanted one of those top prospects — Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Victor Robles or Trea Turner — for Chapman, any deal for Miller would almost certainly have to include one of them and more. Joe Ross, not included on the prospect lists because he has logged too much big league time, is another young player Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo has said he would prefer to keep. Given the asking price for Chapman, and the fact that the Yankees found a team willing to meet it, the Nationals seem unlikely to get Miller for the lesser prospect price they are willing to pay.
Such was the sentiment before Tuesday night’s loss. One game, one series, one week changes things at this time of year. Perhaps Papelbon’s second loss in as many games will leave the Nationals rethinking what they can and can’t give. Perhaps, because of course it is just one game in the end, they will stick to their original ideas of how much is too much.
Miller is not the only proven reliever available. Royals closer Wade Davis may be on the market, though his price is likely to be as high. White Sox closer David Robertson might also be pried away from the now-listening White Sox, though no one from the Nationals has confirmed interest there. Brewers relievers Will Smith and Jared Jeffress are less-heralded options. If the Nationals hold firm in their desire to keep their top homegrown talent, an elite closer may not be within reach. The question, then, is whether or not this week has convinced them they cannot live without one.