Battling against bullpens, Nats finding success in late innings

At least Jordan Zimmermann isn’t the only National League East pitcher to get ridiculously poor run support.

How about Philadelphia’s Cliff Lee, who threw 10 scoreless innings against the Giants last night (10!) only to get matched pitch for pitch by Matt Cain and then see Phillies reliever Antonio Bastardo give up the game-winning run one out into the 11th?

That’s brutal. And I could make any number of jokes here about Bastardo’s name, but I’ll steer clear of all that.

During Ryan Zimermman’s postgame chat with reporters last night, the Nationals third baseman brought up an interesting point which I hadn’t really thought all that much about previously.

“Our seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning at-bats this whole year have been tough,” Zimmerman said. “And those are the at-bats that win or lose you games.”

It’s obvious the Nationals had been excelling in the late innings this season, as dictated by their 3-1 record when they’ve trailed entering the eighth. But Zimmerman’s quote made reporters open up the stats and see exactly how good the Nats’ late-game approach has been.

Turns out, Zimmerman’s right. Of the 49 runs the Nats have scored this season, 22 of them (45 percent) have come in the seventh inning or later. The eighth inning has been the one where the Nationals have really done work; they’ve put up 11 runs in the eighth inning alone, and are hitting .308 with a .415 on-base percentage in that frame.

Why have the Nats been so successful in the late innings, when teams usually throw out their best bullpen arms? Zimmerman has a theory.

“Bullpens have swing-and-miss pitchers,” he said. “As you see them more and as you get more at-bats, you kind of start to lay off those at-bats. Those teams, the Red Sox and the Yankees and the Cardinals and the teams that go to the playoffs every year, it’s hard to get those last nine outs against them, because they don’t swing at balls. And I think we’re starting to learn that and making them come to us a little more.”

To Zimmerman’s point, the Nationals have drawn 24 walks from innings seven through nine this season, compared to 29 walks in innings one through six.

Once that eighth inning comes around, the run production seems to rise, as well. In 89 at-bats during the eighth and ninth innings, the Nats are hitting .292, compared to .238 in innings one through seven, and three off their six home runs on the season have come in the eighth or ninth innings.

That’s how you win games. If you can get quality starting pitching and battle until the very last out, getting runners on base and moving them over in the late innings, you’re bound to have success.

“The seventh, eighth and ninth innings these last couple games, we’ve done a great job of making the pitchers come to us and not getting out of our plan,” Zimmerman said. “It’s definitely a good learning experience for down the road.”

“We’re playing nine innings,” catcher Wilson Ramos added. “That’s the most important thing because we’re never putting our heads down. We were losing in the eighth inning (Wednesday) and everybody was staying with their head up, saying ‘Let’s go.’ And we did.”

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