Here’s a strange note: Last night’s blown 4-0 lead and eventual 6-4 loss to the Braves came six months to the day after the Nationals blew a 6-0 lead and lost 9-7 to the Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
Ironically enough, Drew Storen’s first save opportunity since that crushing postseason loss came last night. This one also ended in a blown save and a Nats loss, although Storen wasn’t on the mound when it ended this time.
I thought Ryan Zimmerman’s point last night was an accurate and interesting one: The Nats’ flaws both early this season and in their postseason run last season were defensive miscues and late-inning pitching issues.
“I think we definitely need to learn from our mistakes,” Zimmerman said. “It’s the same thing that kind of got us last year.”
The defense is something that one can expect will come around on its own eventually. The pitching, that’s more up in the air.
Davey Johnson took responsibility for last night’s loss, saying that he’s been working his bullpen a bit too hard lately. In a sense, he’s right.
There have been a handful of times this season when Johnson has had a starter going strong and at around 90 pitches, the Nats skipper has opted to turn things over to his bullpen.
Stephen Strasburg exited on opening day after throwing 80 pitches over seven innings. Gio Gonzalez was pulled after six innings and 91 pitches the next night. Jordan Zimmermann has twice thrown 90 pitches or fewer and delivered quality starts both times. Ross Detwiler was yanked after he threw 82 pitches over six innings in his first start and 90 pitches over seven last night.
It’s not an awful strategy, per se, especially early in the season. Johnson doesn’t want to wear his starters down, preferring to ease them into action in their first couple of starts.
But Johnson pulling his starters early means more innings for the relievers, a group that overall has posted a 6.34 ERA this season.
More innings for the ‘pen results in Tyler Clippard having pitched six times in 10 games. Same with Rafael Soriano, who was unavailable last night because of his recent heavy workload, including three straight appearances against the White Sox. Storen has now thrown 5 1/3 innings early in the season.
Johnson is a fan of pulling his starters after they’ve completed an inning, taking them out on a high note and giving them a shot at a win. This strategy can build confidence and keep a pitcher in a positive frame of mind going into his next start. But it also lengthens the game, in a sense, forcing more relievers into action.
Last night, for example, if Johnson puts Detwiler out there to start the eighth inning, Detwiler might stay in his groove and get three quick outs, allowing Johnson to rest Clippard for a night. Detwiler might also retire a batter or two and then get into a jam, but then Johnson needs fewer outs from his bullpen.
It’s a fine line to walk. You don’t want to rely too heavily on your starters early in the season, but you also don’t want to get stuck in a situation where you’ve used key relievers too frequently and your bullpen is overworked or has a guy or two that’s unavailable.
Johnson acknowledged that his management of the pitching staff has at least in part led to a couple of the Nats’ losses this season. Now that he has that mindset and now that the Nats have gone two full times through the rotation, we’ll see if Johnson lets his starters have a shot at working a little deeper into games in certain situations, keeping a hot pitcher on the mound and allowing for rested relievers to enter games with favorable matchups in the later innings.