Davey Johnson phoned the bullpen in the 10th inning Sunday afternoon, a call he had resolved to make only in case of emergency. He planned to give all-star set-up reliever Tyler Clippard the day off, because the night before Clippard felt discomfort in his shoulder warming up. But these Washington Nationals have a knack for creating emergencies.
And so in the 11th inning, as shadows criss-crossed the infield and afternoon spilled into evening, Clippard jogged in from right field. The Nationals had come back from five runs down and overcome two blown umpiring calls to force extra innings. But their latest heart-stopping victory never came, dying when Joey Votto drilled a rocket to the left field fence in the 11th inning off Clippard. Votto’s double helped lift the Cincinnati Reds to an 8-5 victory before 25,679 at Nationals Park.
The loss snapped the Nationals’ five-game winning streak, prevented them from completing the first four-game home sweep since baseball returned to the District and blocked them from matching the 1930 Senators’ 8-2 start, the best 10-game beginning for a Washington team in the last 82 years (a total of 50 seasons). The Nationals, still in first place, would have to settle for the best start for a Washington squad since 1951.
“We’re 7-3,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I don’t think there’s anything to be mad about.”
Still, several corners of the Nationals’ clubhouse seethed afterward. Wilson Ramos broke the silence and interrupted his own stoic state into his locker by kicking a bat. Ross Detwiler, who had given up a first-inning grand slam, after thinking he had escaped the inning three times, sealed his lips when reporters asked about the umpires. Clippard sat in his chair, ice around his shoulder, and gazed into nowhere. They were angry at the opportunities missed, at the umpires, at the bitter end.
Clippard did not pitch Saturday, but he did warm up in the eighth inning. He had trouble getting loose, Johnson said, with soreness in his right shoulder. Clippard, who pitched more innings than any reliever in baseball over the past two years, feels the discomfort at the end of every spring training, but “this is kind of lingering a little longer,” Johnson said.
“It’s just normal stuff I’ve been going through my whole career,” Clippard said. “It’s nothing out of the ordinary. I felt really good today. I’ve been feeling good every outing. They’ve been doing a good job of looking out for me. I can’t ask for anything more.”
Clippard began his appearance oddly, catching a spike on the rubber mid-delivery on his first pitch. He crumpled to the dirt, arms and legs flailing in every direction. “It’s happened to me a few times, for whatever reason,” Clippard said. “It’s kind of embarrassing, but it didn’t really affect me that much.”
Four pitches later, Drew Stubbs flared a single to center. Ryan Zimmerman made a diving catch of Wilson Valdez’s sacrifice bunt attempt, but Zack Cozart followed with a groundball single to right field. Clippard faced the exact situation he wanted to avoid: one out and Votto, the 2010 National League MVP, walking to the plate with two on.
The Nationals had intentionally walked Votto twice, but now Clippard had to pitch to him. He fell behind, 2-0, and fed Votto a 94-mph fastball. He smoked it to left field, over Mark DeRosa’s outstretched glove. Both runners scored. Scott Rolen added one more run with a bloop just over second baseman Danny Espinosa.
“I felt really good today,” Clippard said. “I think a couple of my pitch selections were probably the wrong choice. It’s just one of those games.”
The Nationals’ comeback had fallen just short. Adam LaRoche gave the Nationals life in the fourth with a bases-loaded, two-run single, his latest clutch hit. Ian Desmond brought the Nationals all the way back with an RBI double in the fifth and a game-tying RBI single to center in the seventh that scored Rick Ankiel from second.
Their deficit built in the first inning, after calls that left them steamed hours later. Detwiler was cruising through the first inning when, with two outs, Rolen hit a groundball to the left side. Desmond circled the ball and made a high throw to first base.
LaRoche leaped to grab the ball and, replays would show, landed with his on the corner of the bag with Rolen several steps away. First base umpire Mike Everitt called Rolen safe, keeping the inning alive for Jay Bruce.
Detwiler ran the count full to Bruce and twirled a 3-2 curveball. Ramos did not move his mitt. Bruce took a step toward his own dugout, bracing like a defendant awaiting a guilty plea. Home plate umpire Laz Diaz pardoned him, calling ball four. Again, the inning had continued, and now the Reds had the bases loaded with Ryan Ludwick coming to the plate.
“Ross did a great job handling that,” one Nationals pitcher said. “I guarantee I would have got thrown out if that was me.”
Detwiler jumped ahead of Ludwick, and on 1-2 he threw a 96-mph fastball that, according to replays, sailed over the plate. Diaz called ball two. Two pitches later, Detwiler threw a four-seam fastball that did not stay far enough inside. Ludwick crushed it over the center field fence. The Reds had scored four runs all series, and now Ludwick’s grand slam had given them a 4-0 lead in the first inning. Afterward, Detwiler would not comment on the umpires, actually keeping his lips sealed when asked specifically about the curve to Bruce. But he admitted he did not react like he wanted to following the calls.
“We caught a couple bad breaks,” Johnson said. “I thought we had him at first and then I thought that was a pitch that should have been called a third strike on Bruce. But that’s baseball.”
“Especially with two outs, I don’t want to shut down and go back over the pitches, like I do between innings,” Detwiler said. “I need to stay in it and focus mentally on my next pitch. I think I let it go a little bit. It wasn’t completely gone, but I let it go a little bit. And that’s when you make your mistake.”
Had Everitt called Rolen out, Detwiler would have thrown 20 pitches in the first inning rather than 38. The Reds would not have not scored four runs, and the Nationals, later, would not have needed a fifth reliever. The teams would probably not have played their third extra-inning game in four days, and Clippard could have stayed in the bullpen.
“I’m tired,” Clippard said when asked about the tooth-and-nail games. “It definitely takes a toll on you. But they’re fun. They’re fun games to be in. You can’t really ask for much more than that.”