Braves 7, Nationals 6: Second Look

As I discussed in the game story, last night’s 7-6 loss to the Braves felt like the kind of game the Nationals, by this point, have made a habit of winning. That was even the consensus around the clubhouse - player after player said he believed the Nationals, after coming back to tie the game in the eighth inning, were going to pull it out. But it didn’t happen, and there were plenty of things from the late-inning developments to chew on after this one. That’s what we’ll do this morning in Second Look:

Golden Geese
Nationals’ middle relief: With Luis Atilano struggling and the game tight throughout, the Nationals wouldn’t have gotten to extra innings in this one if not for the efforts of Sean Burnett, Tyler Walker and Brian Bruney, who combined to throw 2 2/3 scoreless innings. That bought the Nationals time to tie the game in the eighth inning; what they need now from that group is consistency. It’s imperative that either Burnett or Bruney becomes reliable enough that the Nationals don’t have to ask Tyler Clippard for multiple innings every time he pitches, or, as manager Jim Riggleman put it, “he won’t be able to brush his teeth” by the end of the season.

Josh Willingham: A day off didn’t mean the left fielder couldn’t play a big part in the game, and he did with a pinch-hit single in the 8th inning that scored two runs and tied the game. Facing Takashi Saito, who’d only put him on base once (with a walk) in four prior plate appearances, Willingham won the battle. He knew Saito would throw him breaking balls, and grabbed one in the strike zone on a 2-1 count. “I was looking for something to hit. Saito’s been tough on me in the past,” Willingham said. “He throws me a lot of breaking balls. He left a breaking ball kind of down, on the middle of the plate, and I was able to hit it well.”

Roger Bernadina: The right fielder looked strong at the plate again, going 2-for-4 with a pair of runs. He came to the majors on a hitting tear at Triple-A Syracuse, and is continuing that now that he’s getting consistent playing time. Whether it’s enough to make a Bernadina/Justin Maxwell platoon workable in right field remains to be seen, but Bernadina has provided some punch against right-handers lately.

Goose Eggs
Luis Atilano: It’s not that the right-hander was terrible in his third big-league start - he pitched 5 1/3 innings and kept the Nationals in the game for most of that time. But he put the leadoff runner on base four times in six innings, two of those with walks. It ran up his pitch count early, gave the Braves a chance to score some runs when the Nationals were getting to Tommy Hanson and ultimately forced the Nationals into a situation where they were rallying to tie the game, not win it.

Ryan Zimmerman: He drove in a run on a sacrifice fly, but was 0-for-4 other than that. He struck out twice with men on base, and his ninth-inning flyout to right came up a few feet short of the warning track.

In Case You Missed It:
--Plenty to dive into here today. First, the 10th-inning strategy: Down a run, he Nationals put Cristian Guzman on base with a leadoff single, but instead of having Ian Desmond bunt him over, manager Jim Riggleman opted to play for the win, letting Desmond swing away (he flew out to right) and pinch-hitting for Bernadina with Wil Nieves against left-handed Braves closer Billy Wagner. Nieves struck out on three pitches in a bad at-bat against Wagner, and Willingham lined out to end the game. Asked about the decision afterward, Riggleman said he never gave Desmond the bunt sign because doing so would have put Guzman on second, leaving first base open so the Braves could pitch to the left-handed Bernadina (or take their chances with Nieves), walk Willingham and get a lefty-on-lefty matchup with Nyjer Morgan. The Nationals were also down to two relievers at that point, and with Clippard putting in so much work, RIggleman wanted to stay away from him. So he essentially decided to go for two, rather than kick the extra point, and Desmond agreed. “I don’t think you really play for the tie when you’re at home,” he said.

--The decision to bring Matt Capps back out for the 10th inning was affected somewhat by the remaining inventory in the Nationals’ bullpen, but the fact Capps only threw nine pitches in the ninth inning played into it, too. He’s worked multiple innings before this year, and had plenty left in the tank to go out there again.

--Nyjer Morgan was caught stealing to end the fourth inning, and while the leadoff hitter is doing his part with a .288 average and .362 on-base percentage, you’ve got to wonder if there’s a point where his aggressiveness becomes detrimental. Morgan has made 10 outs on the bases already this season: six times caught stealing, three pickoffs and one out when he tried to stretch a double into a triple against the Dodgers on April 24 and was thrown out to end the inning before Craig Stammen crossed home plate. It’s unlikely the Nationals are going to tell Morgan to dial it back drastically; Riggleman is OK with “aggressive mistakes,” and slowing Morgan down would fundamentally change his game. But a little restraint might help.

--The Nationals executed a textbook hit-and-run to tie the game in the bottom of the fifth inning. WIth one out, Pudge Rodriguez at the plate and Tommy Hanson on the mound, Adam Kennedy got a huge jump and took off on the first pitch. The gamble was that Hanson would throw a fastball Rodriguez could handle, and he did; the pitch was low and inside, but caught enough of the plate that Rodriguez could punch it through the hole at shortstop. The ball nearly hit Kennedy, and the Nationals tied the game at four. Kennedy got such a big jump he might have stole third had Rodriguez not put the ball in play, anyway. It was a gutsy call that came relatively early in both the inning and the game, and it worked.

--Adam Dunn walked three times, turning an 0-for-2 night at the plate into a productive offensive game. He did, however, take a called third strike on a fastball over the middle with the game tied in the ninth inning. The pitch was a little low, but close enough that it’s worth swinging.

Talking Points:
1. Did you agree with the decision to play for the win in the 10th? Riggleman’s an aggressive manager who’s probably going to make that call more often than not, especially at home and especially with a thin bullpen. He had the bottom of his order working there, though, and the Nationals were facing a tough matchup in Billy Wagner. What did you think of the move?

2. Any concerns about bullpen depth at this point? We saw the Nationals’ middle relievers come up big to keep the game tied, but the six-man configuration and Tyler Clippard’s workload played into the decision to go for two, so to speak, in the 10th. That might change soon, especially with such a long stretch of games without a day off. But is it detrimental now?

3. Most Nationals players said they expected they would wind up winning the game after tying it in the eighth. Did you? Have you gotten to a point with this team where you’re no longer conditioned to believe the worst?

Leave your answers to the Talking Points questions in the comments section. I’ll have more later today, but if you’ve got other things on your mind, feel free to bring them up in the comments, as well, and I’ll respond to you there.