These Washington Nationals and their fans will look back on decisions that defined this season — some made by their manager, some made by hitters, some made by pitchers and catchers — and wonder. They will wonder what might have been if a different choice were made. They will wonder why choices that failed did not succeed. They will wonder who is to blame, and wonder what might have been. But they will likely struggle to find quick conclusions, because seasons like these do not fall apart like this without nuance.
The difficult choices that doomed the Nationals in their 4-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday night were made by Nationals Manager Matt Williams and starter Max Scherzer in the seventh inning. The Nationals held a one-run lead at the time, and Williams needed to find a way to preserve it. He stuck with Scherzer through a leadoff double and two outs, then left him in to face all-star Manny Machado.
“I’m not bringing anybody in in that situation to face Machado other than Max,” Williams said.”
With a left-hander and right-hander warming in the bullpen, Scherzer battled Machado to a 2-2 count. Scherzer reached back and fired a 98-mph fastball — everything he had. Machado hit it out to left-center, so Scherzer’s 122nd pitch became the decisive one.
“Was just trying to absolutely let it fly and let it ride to the top of the zone. That’s where I get a lot of swings and misses,” Scherzer said. “When I challenged him with my best, he beat me.”
Jonathan Papelbon decided, or so it seemed, to hit Machado with a pitch in the ninth. He was ejected. That did not end up making a difference. The decision to stick with Scherzer, and the pitch the right-hander threw, did.
Bad results make decisions like those the focus of ire, the center of debate through the winter months. Context makes decisions like those more complicated than their results make them seem.
Consider that late-inning losses have battered the Nationals since April, and the bullpen has not earned much trust. Lost late-inning leads have pained them from the start, stinging them in the standings, and they ache more than ever now, as the Nationals slide closer to the end. After Wednesday’s loss, the Nationals are any combination of five Mets wins or five losses of their own from the end.
Consider this, too: Scherzer was well over 100 pitches in his 31st start of the season. He was still hitting 98 mph. Scherzer is in the first year of a seven-year, $210 million contract. His arm is not one to be pushed without cause, though he does not like coming out of games.
“I actually felt very strong there in the seventh. My pitch count really wasn’t indicative of how I felt,” Scherzer said. “Low 100s after the sixth, and I still felt strong, still felt good. Knew I could go out there and compete for a full inning, and I did.”
In the first inning, Baltimore left fielder Steve Pearce hit a fastball out to give the Orioles a 2-0 lead, Scherzer’s 17th home run allowed in the second half. But Scherzer recovered and broke the Nationals’ single-season strikeout record with a flourish, surpassing Stephen Strasburg’s 2014 mark of 242. He struck out 12 batters, including five of six at one point.
Scherzer scattered hits among the strikeouts, and pitches piled up. After Wilson Ramos’s double drove home Michael A. Taylor with the tying run in the fifth, Williams let Scherzer hit for himself with one out, with what seemed like an inning’s worth of pitches left in him. Scherzer singled to give the Nationals runners at first and third. Anthony Rendon scored Ramos with a sacrifice fly, and the Nationals took the lead. Scherzer pitched through the sixth, striking out two more batters as he did so.
“Shoot, 120 pitches and that last pitch was 98 miles per hour, so we know we’ve got it in the tank,” Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper said. “He’s a competitor out there. He threw his butt off tonight.”
But the decision to push Scherzer through seven did not work out, because Machado hit the fastball Scherzer tried to throw by him.
“You can always second-guess yourself,” Scherzer said. “When you’re on the mound out there in that situation, you think, ‘What’s your best pitch in this situation? What can you execute?’ For me, I thought fastball was my best pitch.”
Perhaps going to the bullpen would not have worked either. As has been well-documented, it has been prone to inconsistency. As it turned out, Papelbon got ejected with two outs in the ninth after he followed an inside fastball to Machado with another one that hit him.
Williams did not think there was intent, that Papelbon was ejected too quickly. Papelbon said he was surprised and that he thought home plate umpire Mark Ripperger let crowd reaction influence the decision. Crew Chief Brian Nora said Ripperger judged intent. Harper said he thinks he will get hit tomorrow.
But the choice to hit Machado did not matter much Wednesday. The Mets lost, too, but that hardly mattered, either. Choose whatever reason you will, but the fact is this: The Nationals are 6