Through five innings Thursday night, it looked like Davey Johnson would have less to worry about than in any game so far in his short tenure as Nationals manager. The offense - which needed a suicide squeeze to score the winning run against the Cubs the night before - needed no such help, battering Matt Garza for seven runs and adding another in the fourth.
And with an eight-run lead in the hands of his most durable pitcher, it seemed like Johnson was going to get the break for his bullpen he wanted.
But then Hernandez gave up a single, and then another, another and yet another, putting the Cubs on the board. Johnson didn’t signal for a reliever. Darwin Barney doubled to center, scoring a pair of runs, and Johnson stuck with Hernandez. It was only after Blake DeWitt launched a three-run pinch homer - the play that Johnson called “the momentum shifter” - that he called for a reliever. By that point, the Cubs were within two runs.
In Johnson’s words, he gambled, and lost. And when their bullpen continued to give up runs, the Nationals took a gut punch of a defeat.
The lead they blew in their 10-9 loss to the Cubs set a franchise record for the biggest lead they’ve given up in a loss. It cost them a sweep of a Cubs team whose bullpen was in shambles, and dropped them back to within a game of the .500 mark.
And though there were plenty of other moments where the Nationals could have stopped the Cubs, Johnson put the blame on himself for how he handled the sixth inning.
He wanted to get at least six innings out of Hernandez, with his bullpen having pitched 10 2/3 innings in the first three games of the series and Drew Storen having worked four of the team’s last six. And with DeWitt coming up to pinch hit, Johnson stayed with Hernandez rather than getting left-hander Sean Burnett to face the lefty.
“I didn’t want to get (Burnett) up in the sixth that early,” Johnson said. “He’s been finishing a lot of ballgames. It called for me to have a left-hander up in the sixth, with the pinch hitters coming up. I just said, ‘Well, I’m going to stay with Livo. Livo will get me an out.’ And he left one right over the plate to DeWitt. I’ll have to re-evaluate how I’m going to use my left-hander.”
Johnson has been asking for another situational lefty in the bullpen, and he could have used one on Thursday night. But there was still plenty of time for the Nationals to escape before the Cubs caught up to them.
Todd Coffey walked a batter in the seventh, and when Burnett finally did come in, he hung a first-pitch slider to Carlos Pena, who swatted it over the right field fence to tie the game.
“I know, for my part, I just went out there and made a bad pitch,” Burnett said. “Knowing he’s going to be so aggressive early, that wasn’t the proper location. If I can bury it, it’s probably a good pitch.”
In the end, the Cubs took the lead against Henry Rodriguez, regaining it after the Nationals tied the game in the eighth and resisting another comeback attempt in the ninth. Afterward, there was nobody feeling worse than Johnson.
“I’m going to have a hard time sleeping tonight on that one,” Johnson said.