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Observations of the Nats’ 4-1 loss in St. Louis

Jun 15, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT

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Remember when the Nationals were baseball’s hottest team? Well, that was three whole days ago, and you’d be surprised how much can change in only three days.

After a 4-1 loss to the Cardinals last night, the Nats now find themselves in a 3-game funk. And make no mistake, it qualifies as a funk, at least at the plate. A Nationals lineup that was on fire for about two weeks has scored a total of two runs over these last three games.

Some observations of this latest loss and what the Nats now face in today’s series finale…

— As he has done regularly over the last few months, Stephen Strasburg pitched exceptionally well. And as has happened to him more than once during this same span, the right-hander was done in by one big hit late. With the game tied 1-1 in the top of the seventh, manager Matt Williams let his pitcher hit. Strasburg wound up drawing a walk, but the inning immediately ended with Denard Span’s groundout. So Strasburg re-took the mound for the bottom of the inning, trying to keep the game tied and send himself back to the dugout with a chance to earn the win. He immediately served up the go-ahead homer to Matt Adams on a 3-1 fastball at the knees. The pitch, by no means, was poor. It was over the plate, but down. Credit to Adams for reaching down and still making good contact, driving the ball out of the park.

Given the end result, there surely was some second-guessing afterward, questioning Williams’ decision not to pinch-hit for Strasburg and turn to his bullpen. That argument doesn’t fly a whole lot, though, for a couple of reasons: 1) Strasburg wasn’t to blame for killing the rally, he reached base, and 2) The Nats bullpen made an even bigger mess of the bottom of the seventh than Strasburg did.

Look, if this guy is going to be the ace of a perennial contender, he has to be given the opportunity to pitch deep into games, especially those with uncertain outcomes. It didn’t work last night, but Strasburg has to know he’ll continue to get those kind of opportunities down the road.

— The biggest culprit in that failed top-of-the-seventh rally was Span. Stepping to the plate after Strasburg drew the walk off Cardinals starter Shelby Miller, Span found himself up with the bases loaded and two outs in a tie game. He faced a tough left-hander in Randy Choate, but Span didn’t do himself any favors by grounding the very first pitch he saw — and the only pitch Choate threw all night — to second base to end the inning.

Span had been the Nationals’ hottest hitters for awhile, but he has fallen back into a major drought at the plate. He’s now 0 for his last 19 and has seen his batting average plummet from .282 to .262 in only five days. It’s been noted how important his contributions are to this lineup’s overall fortunes. It should be noted how detrimental his struggles are as well.

— As mentioned earlier, the Nats’ bullpen made a real mess of the bottom of the seventh after Strasburg departed. Jerry Blevins entered to face Matt Carpenter and immediately walked him. Enter Drew Storen, who plunked Mark Ellis on his very first pitch to load the bases, then walked Matt Holliday to force in another run. That relief corps has been so good this season, but last night’s performance was about as bad as it gets. It’s one thing to get beat. It’s quite another to just hand it to the opposition without forcing them to even take the bat off their shoulders.

— So now the Nationals find themselves in must-win territory this afternoon. At least, must-win if they want to avoid getting swept by the Cardinals and heading home from what looked like a fantastic road trip a pedestrian 5-5. Whether anyone wants to acknowledge it or not, they still have a mental hurdle to overcome against St. Louis. This team has now lost 10 of its last 12 regular-season games vs. the Cards, including five straight at Busch Stadium. They’ve won only twice in that ballpark since 2008.

The good news: They’ve got Doug Fister on the mound for the series finale, and nobody has been more consistent lately than the tall right-hander. Fister is 5-0 with a 1.83 ERA over his last six starts, striking out 29 while walking three. Already the Nationals have asked the newest member of their rotation to come up big in games they really needed to win. And already Fister has delivered on multiple occasions. He’ll be asked to do it again today.

  1. secretwasianman - Jun 15, 2014 at 6:16 AM

    Excellent Mark. Minus the Giant series this team has proven over and over that it is NOT an elite team. Fortunately the Nats are in a bad division.

    • micksback1 - Jun 15, 2014 at 9:10 AM

      hey dude, let me add this, I can see Nats winning the East, but other than Werth, they are too soft mentally to win a 3 of 5 series verse anyone in post season as of now.

    • adcwonk - Jun 15, 2014 at 11:15 AM

      You declared the season over on Apr 25. So what’s new?

    • dcwx61 - Jun 15, 2014 at 12:36 PM

      I hope the negative critizism comes from fanatical passion rather than than immature desire to put another fan base down.

    • numbskull111 - Jun 16, 2014 at 8:25 AM

      You hit the nail right on the head. This team is a second tier team in MLB. They are good, but not great.

  2. laddieblahblah - Jun 15, 2014 at 6:27 AM

    In Span’s first 3 swings at the plate, he gave Shelby Miller 3 outs, and in just one swing with the bases loaded, he gave Choate the out that killed the rally. Yesterday, in Span’s first three swings in that game, he gave Lynn two easy outs.

    Span has been on a pace of almost one out per swing of his bat, while almost everyone else in the lineup is working the Cardinals’ pitchers and battling at the plate. I don’t get it.

    The Nats defense continues to be excellent, and the rotation has been superb, but the pen has been terrible of late, and the Nats are back to poor situational hitting.

    I have my own pet theory about the turnaround, but what I think doesn’t matter. Fister has been the Nats’ stopper of late, and they have had a lot of success against lefties, like Garcia. Let’s get a win today.

    • secretwasianman - Jun 15, 2014 at 8:33 AM

      I would like to hear your theory please. Do you think Span thinks he’s gone when Bryce gets back?

    • dcwx61 - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:47 AM

      +1…a leadoff guy must be patient…Man that was a poorly executed situation.

      • numbskull111 - Jun 16, 2014 at 8:33 AM

        Agreed.

        The other night, all the announcers were talking about was how Lynn was 0 -3 in his past three starts (or last three starts at home…I forget) . They talked about how his command had been an issue recently, how he had walked 11 batters in his past couple of starts, and how Nats hitters should be patient.

        Span’s approach….hack at the first pitch in each AB (actually in his third AB he may have seen a couple pitches before flying out for the third time.)

  3. 3on2out - Jun 15, 2014 at 7:05 AM

    I thought going in a 5-5 road trip would be a satisfactory conclusion. That is already guaranteed. Win today and come up with a 6-4 record following a very difficult swing out west.

  4. Doc - Jun 15, 2014 at 7:17 AM

    Like you Mark, I thought that MW’s decision to have SS bat was real baseball.

    And let’s face it, Strasie worked the count better than Span.

    MW might have done better to PH Hairston for Span, given Span’s Ofer status and that he was facing a lefty.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Jun 15, 2014 at 8:04 AM

      Yes, Frandsen and Hairston vs the lefty or go with a CF who all of a sudden is struggling.

  5. Ghost of Steve M. - Jun 15, 2014 at 8:11 AM

    Here’s the likely scenario if Strasburg doesn’t bat and pulled for the PH. Dobbs comes in as the PH. Matheny brings in Choate. MW counters with Hairston. Matheny IBBs Hairston. Span comes up to bat and you have the same scenario where MW leaves Span in to face Choate.

    There’s the scenario as I see it where the move was to pull Span.

    • nats128 - Jun 15, 2014 at 8:22 AM

      Very interesting when you lay it out like that. Because somehow Strasburg worked the walk, Matty Williams ended up in the same spot if he had pulled Strasburg.

      I think just becuz Strasburg walked doesn’t really vindicate Matty for not going with Dobbs there. I think the situation if Matty did that works out just like you wrote it down.

  6. unterp - Jun 15, 2014 at 8:29 AM

    I have been going on and on about Ramos, right or wrong, but if this team is that dependent on one player then they really are just an average team, which is about what they are. I hope for 99 wins but am satisfied with 83 wins and avoiding 80 losses…

    • dcwx61 - Jun 15, 2014 at 12:29 PM

      I think when they lose 2 or more of their big 5, there will be pain (Zimm, ALR, Werth,Ramos, Harper).
      Lose one, the lineup can handle it but lose two, you set up an aweful bottom of the order.

  7. natsfan1a - Jun 15, 2014 at 8:32 AM

    As it turned out, I didn’t get to see any of this one. Sounds like maybe that’s just as well.

  8. secretwasianman - Jun 15, 2014 at 8:37 AM

    MW is terrible with his pinch hitters. If it’s Zimm, WERTh, ALR , Rendon or Desi than leave them in. But a lefty pitching to Span is a certain spot for PH late in the game. I expect MClouth for Span today.

  9. edshelton2013 - Jun 15, 2014 at 8:54 AM

    secret:
    I think you’re being a little harsh with MW. He didn’t choose Hairston, Dobbs, Lobaton and McLouth–Rizzo did.

  10. micksback1 - Jun 15, 2014 at 9:04 AM

    “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. yup, i feel like Michael Corleone when it comes to the Nats. Just when I think they are ready to get over their stupid mental block verse Caads, they show me they are still head cases. This is ridiculous now. They need to win today. This where Matt Williams needs to kick a few of them in their asses! Span needs to shut up and hit. his slump is old and either he hits or should leave when Bryce gets back. Yes, he is a great defensive player, but he is a choking dog at the plate when it counts as he has been his whole career

    • dcwx61 - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:49 AM

      or walk!

  11. micksback1 - Jun 15, 2014 at 9:06 AM

    Agree with Wasian on Dobbs, Dobbs may be one of the worst MLB players in my lifetime, Rizzo made a mistake with this one. Every GM makes mistakes, i know. Dobbs is a joke, he offers nothing at all to the Nats, accept and automatic KO or weakly hit ball

  12. micksback1 - Jun 15, 2014 at 9:08 AM

    every time I see Dobbs pinch hit, i wonder if MW is miixd up with Michael Corleone, did he place a bet to lose the game, LOL

  13. micksback1 - Jun 15, 2014 at 9:12 AM

    5-5 on road is fine, but one of those wins had to be verse Cards, they have a chance today to go 6-4. I even posted Friday that I felt Nats did not have to win series, only one game.

  14. rmoore446 - Jun 15, 2014 at 9:28 AM

    I understand MW leaving Stras in. Pulling him would have been a bad signal from his manager. If he pulled him and Dobbs or whoever grounded out and the bullpen failed as it did, the negatories would be going just as nuts as they are now. It’s what they do. ,

    • Nats Amore - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:20 AM

      While the bullpen may have failed, it was Stras who gave up the game winning HR after not being hit for, so the bullpen meltdown wasn’t necessarily what lost the game, we’ll never know for sure how things would have played out. I felt that unlike typical Stras, he had begun to struggle a little as the game wore on and had worked out of a couple of jams, so it seemed like a reasonable time to pinch hit given the chance to bag the ducks on the pond.

  15. Faraz Shaikh - Jun 15, 2014 at 9:42 AM

    Glad we are still in first. I also want us to beat Cards every time we play but I will let others worry about their elite team status or whatever. They are in first place of a league division. Last I checked, that gets them to playoffs. What they will do and how far they will go? we should worry when we get there. Losing first two games of a series to a good team does not equal pretender if beating the best team in baseball does not equal to WS win yet.

    About span, as noted, he is in major slump and I feel that he is worried about his job security and that affects his game. I see him as an important piece to this offense and OF defense. What do we do once harper comes back? I am just saying that an OF defense of werth, zimm, and harper is not the best idea.

    • dcwx61 - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:54 AM

      Agree with your rational observations, Faraz. I’d like to see Span platooned more when Harper returns. Sits with leftys and Esp comes in to bat righty.

    • sjm308 - Jun 15, 2014 at 11:19 AM

      Agreed Faraz and you just have to deal with the many knee-jerk reactions on here.

      I have said it many times, I don’t care how we win the NL East, I just want to win it. If it means sweeping the Phils, Mets, and other teams below .500 and not doing well against the better teams, it makes no difference to me as long as we end up in First place.

      Having doubts about Span right now and definitely think its time for at least one game off. This is why we signed McClouth so let him at least try and dig out of his funk as well.

      Mick, you have a short memory on worst MLB players. Please think back to the trials and tribulations of Matt Stairs as his career had definitely come to an end and was still being run out there. Great guy, great teammate but he just couldn’t play.

      Would love to come home 6-4 with a day off and a 2 game lead in the NL East

      Happy Fathers Day to all

      Go Nats!!

      • micksback1 - Jun 15, 2014 at 11:23 AM

        right again Coach, forgot about stairs, guess I repressed him from memory.

        happy fathers day to you Coach!

  16. chaz11963 - Jun 15, 2014 at 9:50 AM

    Great observations, Mark. Totally agree. It is baffling how Span has quickly gone from super star to super disappointment. Same for Storen- good grief, what a choke job.

    • Ghost of Steve M. - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:47 AM

      Storen did that in front of his family and friends also.

  17. natszee - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:50 AM

    Go to the bank,, back up the truck, fill it with cash and drive to your bookie put it all on the Nat’s. TODAY we win and end this trip 6-4 which is exactly what we needed to do. We left a tough one on the table in SD, did well against the Giants and if we go today we go 1-2 against the Cards.

    Happy Father’s Day all!

    • adcwonk - Jun 15, 2014 at 11:17 AM

      http://www.baseballprospectus.com/odds/ still has us winning the division by three games, and in the mix for second best record in the NL.

      • adcwonk - Jun 15, 2014 at 11:27 AM

        (Which is bad news, apparently, for the LoD’ers coming out in full force — as they always do during a losing streak. Ho hum)

  18. natszee - Jun 15, 2014 at 11:09 AM

    A note about Mark’s story.

    “Look, if this guy is going to be the ace of a perennial contender, he has to be given the opportunity to pitch deep into games, especially those with uncertain outcomes.”

    I find it stunning that the term “Ace” continues to be used in the context of SS especially after what J Zim did Friday night. A complete game, 3 hit, 1-0 loss … THAT is what a “Ace” does.

    • adcwonk - Jun 15, 2014 at 11:16 AM

      That’s why Mark said ” **if** this guy is going to be the ace…”

      • Nats Amore - Jun 15, 2014 at 11:40 AM

        While Mark used the term “if”, ESPN ran a story right before last night’s game with a title to the effect of “Strasburg Finally Becoming the Ace We Thought He’d Be”, so the OP may have been referring to the media at large, not just Mark’s comment.

      • chaz11963 - Jun 15, 2014 at 12:02 PM

        I know Stras is a bit of a controversial figure here in DC. We all have such high expectations for him. I think if we really look at his performance, he really is outstanding. Check out this Fangraphs report:

        http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/reminder-stephen-strasburg-is-still-really-really-good/

    • dcwx61 - Jun 15, 2014 at 12:31 PM

      We have 4 aces that would be number 1 on most other teams

  19. veejh - Jun 15, 2014 at 12:19 PM

    Hmmmmmmm…..even Zuck uses the term must win in June. You guys get it now?

    • dcwx61 - Jun 15, 2014 at 12:25 PM

      :Would be good for swagger to know we can beat any team anywhere on any given day…
      The same is 90% physical…the other 1/2 is mental

    • veejh - Jun 15, 2014 at 12:44 PM

      *cue spin from NI contributors about how it applies now and not when I say it*

      • Whynat - Jun 15, 2014 at 12:59 PM

        I believe Mr. Z qualified it with “At least, must-win if they want to avoid getting swept by the Cardinals and heading home from what looked like a fantastic road trip a pedestrian 5-5.”

        I think we would all stipulate to that.

  20. realdealnats - Jun 15, 2014 at 12:58 PM

    There’s no way for the Nats to magically overcome their Braves/Cards head trip they put on themselves except by playing through it.

    Sure some teams come from out of nowhere and win a WS. But basically the law of the land is you build your organization and play ball. And the truth will out.

    It’s been my experience in life that you never really know when you’ll finally break through whatever mental restraint you’ve been suffering through. Just show up to work every day, work hard, and at some point–maybe it feels like luck, whatever–you break through. If you deserve to.

    The Nats were right to send Stras into the 7th. Good heavens, are we that afraid of…what? I say keep getting tougher. If that means taking some more lumps along the way then so be it. Bring on the Cards today and let’s see what we got for’em. It’s kinda like hitting the bully and realizing it wasn’t anything as big as you were making it out to be–that, in fact, you were mostly just bullying yourself all along.

    Fister, no matter how he does today, is the type of antidote this team needs. Not a ton of hype. And not tight either. Get Ramos back, and Harp, and we’ll see what some will call Lady Luck appear again. To me it will be the just desserts for the building of a solid team and a solid organization. No need to panic. Just enjoy the ride. In Rizzo we trust.

    • Whynat - Jun 15, 2014 at 1:00 PM

      +1

    • adcwonk - Jun 15, 2014 at 1:33 PM

      Well put, realdeal! Excellent post!

      (And, thanks for pointing out the obvious — in games where: (a) one or two hits could have changed everything; and (b) we have both Ramos and Harper on the DL . . . . etc.)

Archives

NL EAST STANDINGS

W L GB
WASHINGTON 54 43 --
ATLANTA 54 45 1.0
MIAMI 46 52 8.5
NEW YORK 46 53 9.0
PHILADELPHIA 43 56 12.0
Through Monday's games

UPCOMING SCHEDULE
TUE: Nats at Rockies, 8:40 p.m.
WED: Nats at Rockies, 3:10 p.m.
THU: OFF
FRI: Nats at Reds, 7:10 p.m.
SAT: Nats at Reds, 4:05 p.m.
SUN: Nats at Reds, 1:10 p.m.
MON: Nats at Marlins, 7:10 p.m.
Full season schedule

Mark joins Rob Carlin and Joe Orsulak every Thursday at 4 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet for a half-hour show on the Nats, Orioles and rest of MLB. Re-airs Thursdays at 11:30 p.m., Saturdays at 9 a.m. and Sundays at 11:30 a.m.

ON THE RADIO

As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2014 schedule (subject to change)...

MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 1:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.

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