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Nats can’t overcome latest case of first-inning woes

May 3, 2014, 11:40 PM EDT

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PHILADELPHIA — The Nationals’ coaching staff has analyzed the club’s first-inning woes, a recurring problem for this team through the season’s month-plus, trying to find a common theme or solution to the issue.

And in the end, they can’t find anything to explain why they keep digging themselves into these kind of early holes.

“No. We’ve gone over the whole thing, the amount of pitches that are thrown in the bullpen prior to the game, all the preparations,” manager Matt Williams said. “It’s just the way it’s been sometimes. Hopefully that’s out of our system now and we can go from here.”

It most definitely wasn’t out of their system Saturday night during a 7-2 drubbing at the hands of the Phillies. Tanner Roark became the latest member of the rotation to give up three runs in the first inning, setting the tone for a long and frustrating evening at Citizens Bank Park.

This was, remarkably, the eighth time in 30 games the Nationals have given up at least three runs in the first. Throw in some less-significant second-inning woes, and overall the Nationals have been outscored 51-20 in the game’s first two innings this season. They’ve then outscored the opposition 113-67 after that.

So, what’s to blame for this trend?

“A lot of times, when you’re going out there, you’ve got adrenaline going and you want to get through the first couple innings and then you tend to settle in,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “I think that’s for most everybody. Being a little amped up going out there first and overthrowing or whatever you want to call it, it tends to happen. A lot of times, starters, when they struggle, it’s early until they get into that good rhythm.

“We go out there and do everything we can to make sure they’re in that good rhythm. It just seems like at times, it’s hurt us, where we haven’t made the pitch when we have to. When we have two outs, got to make a pitch. And unfortunately, in a small ballpark, when you make a mistake it’s going to be magnified.”

That was the case Saturday night for Roark. The right-hander got himself into a quick jam in the bottom of the first, allowing a one-out single to Jimmy Rollins and then walking Chase Utley. Moments later, Ryan Howard mashed a pitch over the wall in left-center for the 3-run homer that put the Nationals in yet another early hole.

“I trying to get in and not leave it up,” Roark said of his fateful pitch to Howard. “Obviously I left it up. Live and learn.”

As well as he has pitched since arriving in the big leagues, Roark can be excused for one rough night. He wound up allowing a career-high seven runs in a career-low four innings of work.

“I know he’s better than that and can do better than that,” catcher Jose Lobaton said.

But it’s becoming difficult to excuse — or at least understand — why every member of the Nationals’ rotation has struggled at some point to get through a clean first inning.

The coaching staff doesn’t believe any change to the pregame routine is necessary. It’s simply up to the guys taking the mound to get their starts off on positive notes and not force their teammates to have to try to claw back every single night.

“It’s perplexing, but we’ve been down I think eight or nine games, three or more after the first, and come back in a lot of them,” Williams said. “But over the course of a season, you’re not going to be able to come back as much as you want to. Look at Tanner the last time out, he was great. This time, not so much. That’s the ebbs and flows of the game and pitching. Not much we can do about it now. Just look forward to the next one.”

  1. NatsLady - May 4, 2014 at 12:46 AM

    Check out the table in my post. After thirty games, is it small sample size or a trend?

    • David Proctor - May 4, 2014 at 1:30 AM

      Why not both? It’s a trend early in the season, but it can change. Matt has said they’re not doing anything differently than in years past. Strasburg’s on Friday you just kind of shrug your shoulders. One, the error should have ended the inning. If you put men on base for free and give them extra outs, of course the possibility of bad things happening increases. Errors have fueled several of the big innings, by thew way. Two, Byrd hit a good pitch. It was on the black where Lobaton wanted it. It happens.

      My concern is when it was happening almost nightly and while it has happened in back-to-back nights, I felt like it was a bigger issue earlier in the year. I know at least two of the big first innings, and maybe three, belonged to Taylor Jordan, who i think showed he wasn’t ready for the big leagues quite yet. So you sort of have to discount those too…he’s not here anymore. Do you think Fister will give up those? Maybe rarely, but not enough to be worried about a trend going forward.

      These things will even out. It’s not that they’re unprepared or that anybody is being negligent. It’s just baseball.

  2. veejh - May 4, 2014 at 1:47 AM

    The coaching staff doesn’t believe any change to the pregame routine is necessary.

    Hmmmmm, maybe change something? This has been a nasty trend.

    • joemktg - May 4, 2014 at 11:13 AM

      I wonder if they’re being out-scouted.

  3. Joe Seamhead - May 4, 2014 at 6:21 AM

    I was surprised when Roark hit for himself, sacrificing the Loboton, in the top of the fifth, losing 5-0. Seemed like a good time for a pinch hitter, but maybe with the way AJ was pitching it would not have mattered. Roark got pulled in the bottom of the inning without recording an out.

    It just really was a poorly pitched game by Tanner.

    Let’s sweep it under the rug, move on, and get ‘em today!

    • NatsLady - May 4, 2014 at 7:08 AM

      Pretty much needed shutout innings after the first from Roark the way AJ was pitching. Would have been nice to go into the rain delay down 3-1 or 3-2, would have completely changed the complextion of the game.

  4. NatsLady - May 4, 2014 at 7:19 AM

    One feels that if the Mets were serious about winning 90 games they would have outbid the Tigers for Joel Hanrahan. No bullpen. Ditto for Rockies.

    • NatsLady - May 4, 2014 at 7:21 AM

      Meanwhile, because all the runs were charged to Roark, and Stammen did good, our bullpen ERA is 1.99 (3rd in MLB).

      • Eugene in Oregon - May 4, 2014 at 10:29 AM

        Just another example of why using ERA to measure relievers’ success is suspect. Not that Ryan Mattheus wasn’t put in a difficult situation — two on and no outs, if I recall correctly — but it’s not as if he performed flawlessly (i.e., the 0 earned runs shown for his two innings of work). As someone else pointed out the other day, WHIP and inherited runners scored are better metrics for evaluating relief appearances.

  5. Candide - May 4, 2014 at 7:23 AM

    A thought: If it’s a mental thing, where the pitcher is amped up, not settled in, whatever, why not have McCatty visit the mound as he’s finishing his warmup tosses before first pitch? Shouldn’t count as a mound visit, since the game hasn’t started yet.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - May 4, 2014 at 8:18 AM

      All I know is you can’t miss on location when you throw a power hitter a center-cut 92.6mph four-seam fastball with little movement and expect him to not crush it. Crush it is what Ryan Howard did and does with most mistake fastball pitches.

      Look where the ball was supposed to go to the inside and it missed badly:

      http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/gameday/index.jsp?gid=2014_05_03_wasmlb_phimlb_1&mode=video&content_id=32574605&tcid=vpp_copy_32574605

      Others blamed the pitch selection or extra rest for Roark’s problems but the problem was pitch location. You hit your spots and good things happen.

      • letswin3 - May 4, 2014 at 12:56 PM

        I just viewed the link you provided (hadn’t seen the pitch since it happened live), and you are right. I remembered it as down and away more, but it was called (Lobob) probably off the plate inside, and Roark delivered it center cut. I’m just satisfied that Roark had a bad night on the same night as AJ looked nearly perfect … it could easily have been on a good night for Roark, when he would have lost anyway, because AJ was just that good. Hey, it’s just one loss, and if there is such a thing as a good …. nevermind.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - May 4, 2014 at 1:05 PM

        I agree. Roark and the braintrust need to figure things out with him on this inconsistency he’s experiencing. I realize that’s the life of a 5th starter but he’s not the guy we saw yesterday.

  6. 3on2out - May 4, 2014 at 8:32 AM

    Nats Lady: I know you hear it a lot, but let me add my applause to the audience’s response. Your work is insightful and appreciated. Thank you.

    • NatsLady - May 4, 2014 at 12:55 PM

      Thanks much. My initial inclination on the first inning thing is it’s a “small sample size” quirk like RISP and one-run games–like the time the Nats left a thousand men on base. If you have talented pitching, guys who aren’t hurt, then it will show itself in the long run.

      Still, if I were McCatty, I’d look into it just a bit. Maybe not put two men on base before making the “mistake” pitch?

    • NatsLady - May 4, 2014 at 1:02 PM

      The Nats were about average last year in the first inning (4.00 ERA) 7th in the NL. In 2012, Nats were first in the NL, with an ERA of 3.39.

      Had the same pitching coach all three years. Make of it what you will.

  7. rabbit433 - May 4, 2014 at 8:50 AM

    So, instead of being outscored 51-20 in the first two innings, would it be better if it were the 5th and sixth innings? Come on.

    • Section 222 - May 4, 2014 at 9:36 AM

      Fair point. It’s alot better to be down 3-0 after 1 inning than 3-0 after 6.

      I remember a lot of folks disparaging Burnett when he was available last winter. Wish they had been right. Of course, it’s tough to beat a good pitcher when your three best hitters are on the DL.

  8. Eugene in Oregon - May 4, 2014 at 9:51 AM

    I’m sure someone/somewhere must track the number of walked batters that go on to score, but I don’t know where to find that number. For someone who knows, how do the Nats rank both in allowing BBs to score (it seems like they all do, of course, but I know that can’t be true) and in having their own batters’ BBs translate into runs (seems like they never do, but…). Anyone know where to find that stat?

    • nats128 - May 4, 2014 at 10:05 AM

      Alls I know is you dont walk the leadoff batter.

      • NatsLady - May 4, 2014 at 1:15 PM

        It doesn’t matter if you walk him, or he gets HBP, or singles, or get there by way of an error, and I think pitchers need to keep that in mind. Once he’s there, he has a 43% chance of scoring.

        Now, it’s all situational, of course. The 43% doesn’t tell us whether the runner is fast, whether Mike Trout is up next or the backup catcher, whether the wind is blowing in or out, whether the game is tied or a blowout, whether Clayton Kershaw is pitching–and a thousand other factors that determine the runner’s chance of scoring. It’s a stat developed from thousands and thousands of cases, but not the EXACT case you are in..

        It would be more interesting to me if it were broken out by how often the runner scores in a TIE game (even a 0-0 tie in the first inning…). Maybe that exists somewhere.

    • NatsLady - May 4, 2014 at 1:09 PM

      There is a stat for how often the a runner on first scores if there is no one out (not broken out by how he got there). This is from an article on sacrifice bunts.

      We look with great suspicion at the sacrifice bunt, because in general the out that’s given up is more precious than whatever we expect to gain if the bunt is successful. For example: when a team begins an inning with a runner on first and no one out, the team is expected to score about .9 runs that inning, and the team has a 43% chance of scoring at least one run in that inning. But if the team attempts a sacrifice bunt at that point and the sacrifice succeeds, the team’s run expectancy shrinks to .7 runs, and the team’s chance of scoring at least one run is reduced to 41%.

      The stats are from 2006, so somewhat inflated by the steroid era, but I haven’t seen a more recent table.

      http://baseballanalysts.com/archives/2006/07/empirical_analy_1.php

  9. Ghost of Steve M. - May 4, 2014 at 10:39 AM

    Yes, Nyjer Morgan is back again after Bourn tweaked his hamstring. The lucky fans of Cleveland!

  10. masterfishkeeper - May 4, 2014 at 10:53 AM

    Nate Karns just got called up. So that’s two Nats prospects who were traded in the offseason and are now in the show. I still like both trades, however.

    • Nats Amore - May 4, 2014 at 11:19 AM

      Interestingly, Karns’ ERA was 8.20 at AAA Durham this year. I guess the Rays saw something in him meriting the callup.

      • Ghost of Steve M. - May 4, 2014 at 12:05 PM

        Quite possibly will use him in the bullpen.

      • masterfishkeeper - May 4, 2014 at 1:32 PM

        Karns was awful in his first start or two, but has been doing better lately.

  11. joemktg - May 4, 2014 at 11:07 AM

    1st inning ERA has actually improved: down to a 7.50. Still an MLB worst, but the gap is narrowing.

  12. Sec 3 My Sofa - May 4, 2014 at 12:16 PM

    It’s the Marlins. They’re stealing everybody’s signs and then selling them for profit.

    • ArVAFan - May 4, 2014 at 12:58 PM

      +1

      Have to make money somehow–they’re not doing it on gate receipts!

  13. NatsLady - May 4, 2014 at 12:52 PM

  14. coop202 - May 4, 2014 at 1:01 PM

    Going to chalk it up to bad luck mostly – and that the top if our order tends to be horrendous the first time through. And, well, not to disparage him too much but Taylor Jordan, who I still think has a bright future.

  15. letswin3 - May 4, 2014 at 1:10 PM

    I don’t intend to start an argument over Danny (and I want to make it clear that he is vastly improved from the guy that led the leagues in K’s and battled to keep his head above the Mendoza line), but I’m willing to risk it in commenting on the emerging 2 Dannys. There is the Good Danny who seems to have listened to the good council of others to cut down on his swing, meet the ball and hit for average, with the understanding that he will still get dingers from time to time. But Bad Danny is the guy who shows up with RISP (or in late innings of a one run deficit) and can only envision many runners crossing the plate in front of his patented home run trot …..that thought leads to a screw-ya-in-the-ground swing at anything in the visable spectrum. Surely someone is asking him to view video of the 2 Dannys to stimulate improvement?

    • secretwasianman - May 4, 2014 at 1:26 PM

      Great point. He and Desis strike out rate with guys on is troubling.

    • veejh - May 4, 2014 at 1:46 PM

      Let’e just call Danny un-clutch…..for now.

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