Anyone who, back on Memorial Day, wagered that the Washington Nationals would revive their season and be back in the postseason race by Independence Day is collecting a nice paycheck this holiday. For more than a month, the Nats have played at a 116-win clip, which is more than enough to make the rest of July — and, it figures, the rest of the summer — interesting around here.
And if interesting means that Fernando Rodney — 42 years old, pitching for his 11th team, debuted 17 years ago — is, on a given night, the best option to protect a two-run lead with the tying run at first, well, then, we’re already there.
This run of good baseball, the run that was extended with Wednesday night’s 3-1 victory over the Miami Marlins, also means we can reset to the default mode we’re accustomed to with this team: Nitpicking the little problems that could prove its downfall, be it in a pennant race or — can we even say this? — a postseason series. And in this case, the nitpick is more like a giant roach that sits on the kitchen floor, calmly and defiantly, even when the light is turned on: the eighth inning.
“I hate putting too much stock into it because it could get into their heads,” pitching coach Paul Menhart said Wednesday, honestly but warily. “Like, ‘Oh, we stink in the eighth.’ It’s a story, for sure. But a lot of teams are having that problem.”
Just not to the degree of the Nats. This is not just a visceral problem — that feeling that makes you bellow at the TV, “Seriously? Fernando Rodney?” — but an actual one.
Put Wednesday’s logistics aside for a second and deal with the totality of what the Nats face. No team in the National League allows more runs, on average, than Washington does in the eighth. Indeed, only three teams in all of baseball have a single inning that exceeds the 0.83 runs the Nats give up in the eighth each night (through Tuesday’s games). For the record, they would be San Francisco in the first, Baltimore in the sixth and Detroit in the eighth. Why does that matter? Those three teams entered play Wednesday a combined 71 games below .500. They’re irrelevant, not playing for what the Nats hope to play for.
It says here that for the Nats to make their hopes reality, they have to fix the eighth. It is the one problem that has lingered through this brilliant stretch that brought them to three games over .500 for the first time all season — and 25-10 since a four-game sweep in New York at the hands of the Mets compelled some silly scribes to declare “the season is lost.” (Looks in mirror. Hides.)
Tuesday night was the perfect example that preceded Wednesday’s perfect example. The stories were clear: Patrick Corbin throwing seven dominant innings in the worst of circumstances — a day after the death of his good friend, Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs — and a walk-off double from Trea Turner. But even after the latest in a series of satisfying evenings, there was a seed caught between the teeth, sullying the Nats’ smile.
Wander Suero, selected by Manager Dave Martinez to protect a 2-1 lead in the eighth, couldn’t protect it. This one wasn’t egregious — a leadoff double to no man’s land in between center fielder Victor Robles and right fielder Adam Eaton, a ball that might have been caught but wasn’t. A groundout and a sacrifice fly later, and the Marlins had tied it.
Turner’s heroics washed all that away — except the guys who are rotating through the turnstile that is the Nats’ eighth understand they’re liable to be the focal point on a given night.
“The one thing for me — it comes in any inning but more so in games that are close and especially in the eighth — as a pitcher, I have to be aggressive,” Suero said through a translator. “What I mean by aggressive: I have to get ahead of the hitter.”
“If I start out behind in the count,” said another on-again, off-again candidate for the job, Tanner Rainey, “it obviously makes it that much harder.”
These guys, they know the task — in theory. They either have no history of doing it over and over (Suero, Rainey) or pitched inconsistently and then got hurt (Kyle Barraclough, Justin Miller) or found the strike zone to be some version of kryptonite (Trevor Rosenthal, wherever he may be). It’s not an exaggeration to say that the inability to find a pitcher properly prepared to handle the rigors of the eighth inning on a nightly basis was a major contributing factor to the firing of pitching coach Derek Lilliquist on May 2.
“It’s been a challenge for us ever since I got here, and it was before me being here,” said Menhart, who had served as the Nationals’ minor league pitching coordinator. “We’ve given guys a number of opportunities. Some have been successful. Others not so much. The same guy has sometimes had success and then not.”
Menhart was standing in the dugout, and he looked out across the field. Then he laughed.
“We’re going to find someone,” he said.
Where? Between the couch cushions? Well, actually . . . yeah, maybe.
Rodney had a 9.42 ERA in 17 appearances with Oakland before he was jettisoned to the moon. Before Wednesday, he had thrown two scoreless innings since resurfacing with Washington — which is, essentially, all you need on your résumé at this point to get a shot here. Jonny Venters had a 17.36 ERA in nine appearances with the Braves before he was taken behind Atlanta’s woodshed. He is 34 and has tossed 1 2/3 scoreless innings since resurfacing with Washington.
They were terrible elsewhere, their careers on the brink. The plan for them with the Nats?
“I want to get them in the mix,” Martinez said, unprompted, before Wednesday’s game. “I want them comfortable up here and try to use them in high-leverage situations.”
That is — how to put this? — an interesting approach for a team that’s just now emerging as a postseason contender.
And yet Wednesday night, with the Nats protecting a 2-0 lead and Stephen Strasburg gamely trying to navigate the eighth himself, there was Rodney, trotting in after Strasburg walked one, hit another, then struck out his 14th man of the night with his 110th pitch. He was gassed. The Nats had to turn — somewhere.
So here came Rodney.
“When he came in,” Martinez said, “the conversation was, ‘Hey, we need a groundball.’ ”
Imagine a situation in which the manager got what he asked for. After a single loaded the bases, Rodney calmly induced a double play ball to end the inning. What a world.
The eighth inning’s an issue? Yep, even if the harrowing ninth from closer Sean Doolittle caused your heart more problems Wednesday.
The bet: If the Nats are truly going to push the Braves for the National League East crown — much less have a chance in an October series — General Manager Mike Rizzo is going to have to make a deal for a back-end arm, someone who could spell the overtaxed Doolittle and pitch the eighth.
But for now, they have who they have, a collection of has-beens and never-weres. Let Menhart’s words ring in your ears: “We’re going to find someone.” If they want to continue to rise in the standings, they better.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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