Jun 15, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
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.
COUNTDOWN TO OPENING DAY
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
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