A pair of rainouts Thursday and Friday meant the Washington Nationals had nearly 72 hours — a lifetime in baseball — to chew on the bitter aftertaste of Wednesday night’s blowout loss to the New York Mets, a new low point in their star-crossed season. Since they had last won a game, Tuesday night, Stephen Strasburg had gone on the disabled list, Bryce Harper had scheduled a meeting with James Andrews and the revolving door that is the Nationals’ bullpen had spun around a few more times.
On Saturday, the sun broke through the clouds again, revealing a perfect afternoon for baseball, but the Nationals’ week of disaster continued apace. In an excruciating 4-3 loss to the Minnesota Twins in 11 innings, Manager Davey Johnson guided his makeshift bullpen through four scoreless innings, only to see the game come undone at the hands of his seventh reliever of the day.
And now, the Nationals face a day-night doubleheader Sunday with a depleted bullpen, two new entries on their growing list of injuries and a record — 29-31 — that represents a low-water mark for their season. Sunday’s marathon will begin, according to Johnson, with a “little chat” between himself and his players behind closed doors.
“Very frustrating,” Johnson muttered Saturday, at the start of a terse, two-minute media session in which he used some version of “frustrating” at least six times. “I’m getting my dander up. We’re better than this.”
Right-hander Craig Stammen, the Nationals’ eighth pitcher of the day, allowed the decisive run in the 11th, beginning with a leadoff walk to pinch-hitter Chris Hermann and culminating with Ryan Doumit’s RBI single to center.
“Unfortunately, the last couple times out, he’s been doing that,” Johnson said of the leadoff walk issued by Stammen. “He’s been real wild. But he’s been pretty good all year long. It’s just [that] you can’t do that — can’t give free passes.”
In the Nationals’ near-silent clubhouse, the left hand of reliever Tyler Clippard and the right foot of center fielder Denard Span were covered in athletic wraps, both body parts having been struck by baseballs — Clippard’s on a comebacker to the mound, Span’s on a foul ball off his foot. Both players had X-rays after the game, which were negative. Their availability for Sunday is to be determined.
“Obviously we’ve been dealing with a lot of injuries,” said Clippard. “It’s tough to gain momentum. We’ve had a couple of rainouts here the last couple of days. We’re just trying to play our best every day with what we’ve got.”
Saturday’s was another maddening loss for the Nationals, full of grounders just out of their infielders’ reach, a critical error by first baseman Adam LaRoche, a pitching performance from lefty Gio Gonzalez that pivoted on a handful of indifferent pitches in crucial spots and countless would-be two-out rallies that fizzled for lack of a clutch hit. By the end, the Nationals went down with a whimper, as the Twins’ bullpen retired 14 of the 16 batters it faced.
The Nationals’ lineup, which has produced the lowest on-base percentage in the majors, failed to draw a walk in 42 plate appearances Saturday. “Lackadaisical,” Johnson called the performance.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” LaRoche said. “You see guys trying a little [too] hard. We get guys on base, we’re trying too hard to drive them in.”
A two-run Nationals lead, forged on Jayson Werth’s two-run homer in the third, vanished a half-inning later thanks to leaky defense by the Nationals’ infield and Gonzalez’s inability to pitch above it. The Twins’ two-run fourth featured a pair of grounders just beyond the reach of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and the error by LaRoche on a sharp grounder hit right to him.
“I got to make that play. That one cost us the game,” LaRoche said. “That’s terrible.”
Equally costly, though, was a one-out walk issued to Twins center fielder Aaron Hicks — he of the .177 batting average entering the game — after getting ahead in the count 1-2. Gonzalez, who has never been accused of having a poker face, reacted angrily to the walk, and dejectedly to the lack of help from his infielders.
Gonzalez — pitching on six days’ rest and admittedly a little “rusty” — was done in by his lack of command, not so much because of any direct damage caused by his four walks but because of his mounting pitch count and the 2-2 fastball to Joe Mauer in the fifth inning that missed its mark by almost a foot, tailing over the plate for Mauer to crush into the Nationals’ bullpen to give the Twins a 3-2 lead.
Meantime, the Nationals’ tepid offense managed to make Twins starter Kevin Correia — a middling, pitch-to-contact right-hander — at times look like Nolan Ryan. Out of 102 qualifying starting pitchers in the majors, Correia ranked dead-last entering Saturday in strikeouts per nine innings, with 3.7. But facing the Nationals, he struck out seven in 61 / 3 innings, including Zimmerman, the No. 3 hitter, twice.
“That makes it even harder [to take]. You get a [pitcher] that you can get to, and we don’t,” LaRoche said.
Having reached both the end of their hell week and the 60-game milepost of their season, the Nationals are no longer putting a brave, happy face on their plight. There is no more talk of how early it still is in the season.
“We need to pick it up,” Johnson mumbled. “It’s getting late.”