A failed sacrifice bunt attempt in Tuesday's loss to the Mets was perfectly symbolic of the Nationals' bad strategy and poor play over the past two months.
The Nationals have been a tight, soulless team under a Captain Queeg’s hand for too much of this season, but Tuesday's Game 138 was the kind they chisel into the tombstones of seasons and managerial careers. Washington didn’t just lose to the Mets, 8–7, surrendering seven unanswered runs the night after surrendering five unanswered runs. (The club’s celebratory chocolate syrup has been replaced with ipecac.) The Nationals wrote their own epitaph: the most heavily favored team in baseball when the year started is a jittery mess.
The worst part of these two losses for Washington has been its bullpen. Tuesday night in the seventh inning alone, three relievers threw 35 balls among their 54 pitches, walking six batters. A 7–1 lead disappeared quicker than a Nationals Park crowd. A fourth reliever, Jonathan Papelbon, gave up the deciding run in the eighth on a cookie of a fastball that pinch-hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis whacked for a home run.
Ah, but manager Matt Williams can’t help but leave his fingerprints on these crime scenes. In a by-the-book matchup move, he yanked his starting pitcher, Jordan Zimmermann, with a 3–1 lead and two outs in the sixth with only 100 pitches because he didn’t like Zimmermann’s numbers against Daniel Murphy (.339 entering the game). The move to bring in his best lefthanded reliever, Matt Thornton, against the lefthanded Murphy “worked,” if you mean Thornton retired Murphy. But it also meant that Williams would start spinning that unreliable bullpen carousel early, and a rookie named Felipe Rivero would be on call from the left side if the game got weird.
Zimmermann had just struck out Yoenis Cespedes swinging when Williams exiled him. Nationals relievers would then throw 70 consecutive pitches without getting a swinging strike. Rivero walked each of the two batters he faced, running his consecutive walk streak to three. Erstwhile closer Drew Storen could not have looked more uncomfortable than if Williams has asked him to pitch blindfolded. The strike zone was a rumor.
But wait: Every great horror flick has one more turn of the stomach before everything fades to black. Williams provided it.
A Jayson Werth single put the tying run on base to begin the bottom of the ninth. Williams had his 2-3-4 hitters due, beginning with Anthony Rendon, one of his best and hottest hitters (two hits in the game, .324 over his past 17 games).
There’s no way the Nats bunt Rendon, right? Including his last year at Rice, the six minor-league teams he played on and his entire major league career—that’s 2,007 plate appearances over five years—Rendon has a total of four sacrifice bunts, all with the Nationals in 2013–14, including only one with a runner on first base—and that was when he was a rookie batting eighth.
(The fact that Rendon never bunted as a minor-league player, not even in the Arizona Fall League, is a dereliction of player development duties. Angels manager Mike Scioscia once said all of his organizational players are required to bunt as preparation for possible major league sacrifice scenarios. Mike Trout, for instance, had 16 sacrifice bunts in the minors.)
So Rendon has bunted exactly one runner over to second base in the past five years, and yet Williams asks him to do so to give up one of only three outs he has left in the biggest game of the season. Why? Williams was worried about a double play. Seriously. He even asked Rendon to bunt when the count went to 3-and-1, after which Rendon has a whopping .478 OBP this year.
An ashen Williams, snapping gum into the postgame microphone but explaining himself in a dull, flat monotone, said he was worried that the sinker/splitter combo of Mets closer Jeurys Familia might produce a ground-ball double play off the bat of Rendon.
In other words, Williams gave up an out from one of his best hitters who never bunts because he was worried about something that happens 12% of the time—that’s how often Familia actually gets a double play when one is in order (about the same as the MLB average of 11%). The odds were overwhelming against a double play happening, but Williams was petrified enough of that longshot to give up Rendon’s bat, even with the count overwhelmingly in his favor.
“He bunted it too hard,” Williams said of the—surprise!—failed bunt by the non-bunter.
“We wound up with the same situation anyway,” Williams said, referring to how Bryce Harper followed with a walk.
Well, no, actually. If you let Rendon hit, and he gets on base, that’s very different from bunting into a force out.
This season, Williams has successfully sacrificed in the ninth inning only three times, and those players asked to give themselves up—Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond and Matt den Dekker—batted sixth, seventh and ninth in the lineup, nowhere close to second.
Fittingly for you fans of all things karmic, the next batter, Yunel Escobar, did ground into a double play. Game over.
The Nationals already have lost this series to New York with one more to play Wednesday night. They haven’t won a series against a winning team in two months, dropping six straight and going 3–16. The Nats will tell you they are still in this thing, trailing the Mets by six games with 24 to play. They need to go 18–6 if New York stumbles to an unlikely 12–12 finish. (The Mets have 14 games against the Braves, Marlins, Phillies and Reds, and the pluck this team has shown over the past few weeks is extraordinary.)
For Washington to play that kind of baseball, a loose and confident team will have to show up—in other words, an entirely different team.