ATLANTA - The Nationals won a ballgame tonight. They probably are going to have a new closer when they wake up in the morning. And, oh by the way, the final out of this game turned into a full-blown fiasco after an egregious mistake that led their veteran leader to go on a postgame tirade that delicately teetered the line between acceptable criticism of umpires and the kind of rant that typically leads to punishment from league officials.
Just a run-of-the-mill Tuesday night in suburban Atlanta, right?
Well, not exactly. The Nationals’ 3-1 victory over the Braves at brand-new SunTrust Park was shaping up to be a nice, tidy affair. Max Scherzer had tossed seven scoreless innings, including a key 1-2-3 seventh as his pitch count rose to 116. The lineup delivered several key hits to score three runs and seemingly make C.B. Bucknor’s highly erratic strike zone a non-factor. And after Sammy Solis pitched a scoreless eighth, everything was set up for a clean, simple finish.
And then came the bottom of the ninth, an inning that won’t soon be forgotten by anyone who witnessed it, from those in uniform on both sides to impartial observers in attendance to what remained of a crowd of 21,834.
“It was just a mess,” manager Dusty Baker said, carefully avoiding any more controversy. “That’s all I got to say.”
Others had much more to say, most notably Jayson Werth. Before we get to his extensive comment, though, let’s review what exactly happened ...
It began with another shaky ninth inning from Blake Treinen, who entered with questions about his viability as the Nationals’ closer and departed having likely lost the job altogether. Entrusted with a 3-0 lead, the reliever proceeded to give up two singles sandwiched around a groundout, and then walked two straight batters, one to force in Atlanta’s first run of the night.
“Honestly, felt like it was going to be a really good inning for me,” Treinen said. “I executed two pretty good pitches, one to (Freddie) Freeman and the other a ground ball to (Nick) Markakis. And after that, just kind of lost whatever it was out there. So I just need to be sharper, and it’s kind of inexcusable. Puts our bullpen in a bad position. Puts our team in a bad position when they grind for eight innings and put up three runs, and our pitching puts up zeros. So I should be better.”
With the tying run now on second base, the winning run now on first base, Baker decided to pull the plug. He took the ball from Treinen and handed it to Shawn Kelley, the veteran setup man who wasn’t selected as closer coming out of spring training amid concerns his twice-surgically-repaired elbow wouldn’t hold up under the ninth-inning workload.
That line of thinking may not hold up anymore, with Baker suggesting after the game that a change is forthcoming.
“We’ve got to do something to shore up our closer situation, because this ain’t working,” the manager said. “So we’ve just got to get back to the drawing board and see. ... Treinen has outstanding stuff, but you hate to see a guy like Scherzer tonight - 120 pitches, 115 or whatever it was - pitches with the quality, and then you see it kind of go by the wayside in five minutes. So, we’ve just got to remain confident and just go back to the drawing board.”
Facing a bases-loaded, one-out jam with little margin for error, Kelley got right down to business. He got Emilio Bonifacio to fly out to right for the second out. He then got ahead in the count, 1-2, to Chase d’Arnaud and got the Braves third baseman to swing and miss at a slider down and away, a pitch that hit the dirt and wasn’t caught cleanly by Matt Wieters. D’Arnaud walked back to the dugout, the Nationals all walked onto the field to exchange end-of-game high-fives and the ballpark grounds crew started hauling out equipment to prepare the field for Wednesday’s game.
And then ... well, it appeared to begin with Atlanta third base coach (and former Rangers manager) Ron Washington, who asked Bucknor if it was possible d’Arnaud actually fouled off that final pitch. Bucknor conferred with the rest of his umpiring mates - Manny Gonzalez, crew chief Fieldin Culbreth and Mark Carlson - and then motioned for the Nationals to re-take their positions in the field, the Braves to re-take their positions on the bases, d’Arnaud to re-take his position in the batter’s box and the grounds crew to get out of the way.
Replays showed d’Arnaud having missed the pitch by several inches.
“I mean, honestly there’s no precedent for it,” Kelley said. “I mean, I was celebrating and happy and high-fiving everybody, and then when I saw the umps talking, I said: ‘OK, I think this is going to go bad.’”
As everyone was returning to their previous positions and trying to grasp what in the world was going on, the pitcher and catcher had a quick mound conference.
“I went to Wieters, and I said: ‘What do we do now?’” Kelley said. “And he just looked at me dead serious and said: ‘I think we probably should throw the same pitch and hope we get the same effect. Just get it in the dirt.’”
“The slider,” Wieters said. “The same pitch he threw before. Because he threw it so well the pitch before and knew he got a swing and miss on it, that I figured we could go right back to it.”
They did, and it worked to perfection, with d’Arnaud once again swinging through the pitch and not making contact, and this time Bucknor recognized it. The Nationals gathered again in the middle of the diamond to celebrate.
“Took a few deep breaths, tried to get a little adrenaline back and kind of get myself pumped back up,” Kelley said. “I was able to do it. I don’t know that I knew I could, or if I ever tried, it but I did.”
As his teammates walked off the field victorious, Werth crossed paths with Bucknor, had sharp words for the 22-year Major League Baseball umpiring veteran and had to be restrained before letting it go.
Some 20 minutes later, the 37-year-old left fielder and unofficial clubhouse spokesman offered his take on the situation, trying to choose his words carefully to avoid anything that would upset anyone in MLB headquarters, but making clear how he felt about the end-of-game fiasco and the umpire at the center of it all.
“This is my like my 14th year in the big leagues,” Werth said. “You see a lot of things, but when it’s consistently not with the standards of the league, I think something needs to be done. I just can’t believe that every time it’s bottom of the barrel. Every time. I know I’m handcuffed here. I can’t say a whole lot. I don’t want to get suspended. But these games are serious. That’s the thing. These games mean a lot. The game is over there, and all of a sudden it’s not over. I’m not even talking about balls and strikes or anything else. It just blows my mind that in a big league baseball game that can actually happen.”
That’s what Werth had to say, keep in mind, after his team won. Imagine the reaction had the Nationals emerged from the chaos on the wrong end.
For that, credit Kelley for recording what officially was his first save of the season but felt very much like two for the price of one.
“We were in a bad spot there,” Werth said. “That was a tough spot, bases loaded and Kel comes in and shuts the door. That’s as big of a moment for our team so far this season as anything else. That’s as clutch as Bryce’s three-run dinger the other day. So in that regard, that was great. It’s about picking each other up. Over the course of the season, you’re going to have to pick guys up. Bryce picked me up the other day, and Kelley picked Blake up tonight. So as we go along, we’re going to need to continue to do that. Hopefully, we can not put ourselves in that situation so frequently.”