The turning point in last night's 7-3 loss to the Orioles came in the top of the seventh inning, when Baltimore knocked out six hits, pushed across three runs and turned a one-run deficit into a two-run lead.
Tanner Roark had started that seventh inning on the mound for the Nationals, having worked six solid frames to that point, allowing just two runs (both solo homers) on four hits. Roark had been strong through six, but he surrendered three hits in a four-batter span to start the seventh, and ended up getting stuck with the loss.
I saw on Twitter last night that some fans were critical of Nats manager Matt Williams for his handling of Roark and the Nationals' bullpen, and figured this was a good chance to lay out the situation piece by piece and examine what Williams was going through last night.
The part that seemed to frustrate some fans was that Williams had left Roark in to hit for himself in the bottom of the sixth, with the Nats ahead 3-2 and with runners on the corners with two outs.
To that point, Roark had thrown 84 pitches. He had just worked a 1-2-3 sixth, including a strikeout of Chris Davis to end the inning. He had gone seven innings in each of his last five starts, and had earned wins in four of those.
The only left-handed bat that Williams had available on his bench was Danny Espinosa, whose splits are significantly better from the right side of the plate. The Nats' bullpen has also been taxed of late, and multiple relievers are going through a bit of a rough patch.
Taking all that into account, Williams decided to let Roark hit. The pitcher ended up smoking a ball down the first base line, but Davis snared it to end the inning. Then, the O's came back to take the lead in the top of the seventh, and the second-guessing from some fans began.
Williams admitted after the game that he considered bringing on a pinch-hitter for Roark, but laid out all the factors that he took into account.
"There's thought, but it depends on who else we've got available," said Williams, who declined to answer whether any of the Nats' late-inning relievers were unavailable last night. "Bullpen's been pitching a lot lately, but we've got the lead. And he almost got a hit. That ball almost got down the line.
"But in that situation, he's low pitch count, he's pitching well. He's been pitching well. So we want to take the lead into the following inning, as well. And we can't burn the 'pen, either. Decided to go with him the last inning."
The decision backfired, of course, but in my mind, that doesn't make it a bad decision. Roark had been putting together a nice game, and given the way he's pitched this season, I feel he's earned the right to work the seventh inning.
If the game is tied or the Nats are trailing there, then yes, go ahead and pinch-hit for Roark in the sixth. If you need to push a run across to take the lead or tie the game up, you want a professional hitter in there.
But with the Nats holding the lead, Roark only at 84 pitches, limited pinch-hitting options available and a tired Nationals bullpen, I have no issue with Williams letting Roark hit for himself in that situation.
Yes, the Orioles have a potent offense (although they had been scuffling offensively of late) and yes, they ended up exploding in the late innings and earning the win. And I certainly respect the opinion of those who feel that pinch-hitting for Roark would've been the better move. But I have no problem with Williams trusting his 11-game winner last night given all the factors at play.