The first three pitches from San Diego reliever Marc Rzepczynski to Yunel Escobar in the biggest spot of Wednesday’s game weren’t close. With runners on the corners in the seventh and the Washington Nationals trailing by a run, all three sinking fastballs crossed the plate low. Conventional baseball wisdom is to take the next pitch. But Nationals Manager Matt Williams preaches aggression and often allows his team to swing away in such situations.
Escobar swung — and grounded into an inning-ending double play, extinguishing the Nationals’ best rally of the night in a 6-5 loss to the Padres. A few minutes later in Philadelphia, the New York Mets wrapped up a 9-4 win, growing their lead in the National League East to 6 1/2 games, the Nationals’ largest deficit since April 28.
“I wanted to hit the ball deep, hoping to score a run,” Escobar said. “It didn’t work.”
Gio Gonzalez dug the Nationals a 5-1 deficit, failing to make it out of the fifth inning, but his team had plenty of chances to draw even against the Padres and starter Tyson Ross. Washington had the bases loaded with one out against Ross in the sixth inning but managed only one run.
The Nationals finally broke through in the seventh, pulling within a run on Bryce Harper’s two-run single. But the rally fell short when Escobar swung away on 3-0, unable to beat the throw to first with a head-first slide.
The argument against Escobar swinging in that situation is simple: He entered Wednesday’s game having grounded into 17 double plays, fourth most in the NL. If he takes ball four, Ryan Zimmerman — healthy and one day removed from a grand slam — was on deck.
“I’ve seen these guys for a while,” Rzepczynski said. “I didn’t want to give in 3-0, but in key situations, they swing 3-0. So I wanted throw a sinker down and away, and he took a big swing and rolled it over. It worked out. But you don’t normally see that too often.”
Under Williams, the Nationals entered Wednesday’s game with 28 swings in a 3-0 count, second most in baseball. They are 7 for 15 with two home runs and five RBI in those situations. Williams believed the veteran Escobar could put the ball in the air.
“Over the last two years-ish, I can remember back to Jayson [Werth] hitting a 3-0 grand slam last year,” Williams said. “I can remember a lot of success in those situations. So you have to take that when it doesn’t happen for you. . . . We’re not going to change the way we play. We do it all the time.”
It was only the latest piece of strategy to backfire Wednesday night. Williams opted for the offensive punch of Wilson Ramos behind the plate despite Gonzalez’s better track record with backup catcher Jose Lobaton. Entering Wednesday’s game, Gonzalez had a 3.38 ERA in 15 games with Lobaton behind the plate, a 5.12 ERA mark in eight games with Ramos catching.
The left-hander yielded up seven hits and five runs in 4
In the third, he gave up a single to Ross and then Escobar made a critical throwing error. Matt Kemp drove in two runs when he smacked a low inside fastball into the right field gap for a double. Two pitches later, Gonzalez gave up a two-run home run to Justin Upton, who has struggled on the road and against left-handers this season.
Gonzalez gave up another run in the fourth inning after allowing a leadoff single to Austin Hedges. He then walked shortstop Clint Barmes. A sacrifice moved the runners over, and when Zimmerman ranged far into foul territory to catch a pop-up, Hedges scored.
Gonzalez got two strikeouts in the fifth inning and was hooked when he gave up a single to Jedd Gyorko. He has failed to complete five innings in three of his past six starts and has given up 14 runs over his past three outings. As the schedule shortens, the margin of error for the Nationals only shortens with it.
“I was getting ahead of the hitters,” Gonzalez said. “Walked two guys. Other than that, a typical start.”
Doug Fister relieved Gonzalez and, over his 21/3 innings, allowed a second home run to Justin Upton in the seventh, a blast that loomed large when the Nationals rallied for three in the bottom of the inning.
Pinch hitter Clint Robinson was hit by a pitch, and Denard Span’s double chased Ross from the game. Werth and Anthony Rendon each walked, with the latter driving in a run. Left-hander Rzepczynski came in to to face Harper, who hit a two-run single that trimmed the deficit to one run. Then it was Escobar’s turn.
“We’re playing well,” Escobar said. “We’re not playing badly. Things just haven’t gone well. But really, there’s time left.”