Nats Need to Find a Way to Win the Close Ones

The Nats overall are 8-4 in one run games and that might lead people to believe that they have done a good job of winning the close ones, and while they did end up winning yesterday, the way they went about it is not the path to success. Against Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner the Nationals scored a combined three runs. That by itself may not sound good and no one is denying that the Nats offense has been scuffling, but Matt Cain holds a career 3.35 ERA and is one of the best pitchers in the NL. Madison Bumgarner is a rising star and has been the Giants best starter this season and his career 3.17 ERA isn't too shabby either, and while they Nats struggled to score runs against Cain and Bumgarner the Giants scored a combined one run against Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. In other words, the Nats starters were just that much better.

In both games the Nats entered the late innings with a one run lead and handed the ball to a bullpen that was believed to be one of the best in the NL and in both games the Nats bullpen blew it and forced the game into extra innings. The Nats ended up splitting these two games, but they should have won both of them. These games represent what playoff baseball is like. Whether it is Strasburg vs. Cain, Gio vs. Bumgarner or Strasburg vs. Cueto, Gio vs. Latos or Strasburg vs. Wainwright, Gio vs. Miller; if the Nats starters out-duel the other team’s top pitchers they have to win the game. This is how the Nats are ultimately going to win a World Series. While the lack of offense and ability to score runs is very alarming the more alarming aspect of these last two games was the Nats inability to close out games, and this isn't the first time it has happened this season.  

We can go back to the Nats first game against the Braves this season where they entered the ninth with a two run lead and after Storen loaded the bases and had two outs Ryan Zimmerman made an ill-advised throw to second base and ended up throwing the ball into right field, allowing two runs to score. Two more runs would score an inning later when Stammen gave up a homer to slap hitting utility infielder Ramiro Pena. The Nats had the game won and lost it but this wasn't a pitching duel. The Nats scored four runs in this game and were opposed by Julio Teheren who won't be on the Braves playoff roster unless a couple injuries occur. The more alarming losses are like the ones the Nats suffered Sunday May 12 where Davey Johnson took Gio Gonzalez out an inning too early and turned to Storen and Soriano to close the game out and instead of finishing with a 1-0 win the Nats ended up with a 2-1 loss.  

During this latest road trip the Nats suffered a couple late innings collapses. The first happened against the Padres where Eric Stults pitched the game of his life and Jordan Zimmermann made one mistake on a homerun to Yonder Alonso. It was a 1-1 game entering the eighth inning and should have remained that way except Jordan Zimmermann had given a base runner an extra 90 feet on a missed pick-off throw. The Nats maybe should have and could have scored more runs against Eric Stults, but his slop had the batters baffled all day, and when in these close games the intensity and focus has to pick up. These are the types of games won and lost on the smallest of mistakes and too many times the Nationals are the team making the mistakes. The fielding and bullpen have been the biggest culprits and while it is easy to say score more runs even if the Nats start to do that they won't be able to avoid pitcher's duels completely, and aside from all that there is no difference in handing the bullpen a 6-5 lead or a 1-0 lead. They are both one run leads and the games that need to be closed out.  

The Nats have done many things wrong this early season, but there are reasons for hope. Drew Storen may have a 4.50 ERA and 4.26 FIP, but his K/9 and BB/9 are both in line with career averages while his HR/9 is more than double his career average and his .367 BABIP is abnormally high. When his HR rate and BABIP normalize he will look just like the old Drew Storen again. As far as Rafael Soriano goes he may have blown two out of his last three saves, but he has a season ERA of 3.00 which last I checked is good. The Nats offense does need to score more runs, but when they find themselves in a pitcher’s duel they have to close those games out as well, and they will. The bad performance by the Nats bullpen over these last two days aren't normal and it will turn out simply due to random statistical variance, but keep in mind if the Nats do get to the playoffs they may have to see Matt Cain again, and in eight post-season games his 2.10 ERA speaks to the fact that it is even harder to score runs off him once the playoffs start. 

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