Through the first half of Friday's game against the Brewers, the Nationals' third straight win looked like a foregone conclusion. Michael Morse had already hit two homers, seizing the conversation for the night and making another case he should be in the lineup more often, if not every day. Craig Stammen was humming along, having limited the Brewers to one run on a ball Morse misplayed, showing some of the reasons why he's not in games more often.
What unfolded in the second half of the game brought about a couple head-scratching moments. Manager Jim Riggleman double-switched Morse out of the game in the sixth inning, bringing Roger Bernadina in as an early defensive replacement and using Tyler Clippard to relieve Stammen. That one decision changed the course of the game; Clippard self-immolated again, allowing a two-out double and triple that tied the game, and Sean Burnett gave up two more runs in the seventh. The Nationals' offense turtled the rest of the game, and they turned a 5-1 lead into a 7-5 loss.
The main two questions that came out of Friday's game are pretty clear: Why did Morse, who provided almost all of the Nationals' offense, come out so early, and what's it going to take to fix Clippard?
The first one is easier to answer; Riggleman has been known to go to an early defensive replacement more than a few times. He figures keeping a two-run lead for 12 outs shouldn't be that tough, and when the Nationals had gotten all the offense they should have needed out of Morse, they replaced him with Bernadina, a superior defensive player.
Discerning a fix for Clippard isn't as easy. He's given up 10 earned runs in 8 1/3 innings this month, and struggled even in a lower-pressure situation on Friday, albeit one where he was still asked to protect a not-yet-comfortable lead. He's slowed his fastball back down into the low 90s, which has prevented some of his problems with overthrowing, but many of his pitches were still up in the zone on Friday, including sliders, changeups and cutters. The Nationals have insisted he's not breaking down from overuse, and the issues seem to be more about mechanics and pitch location than anything else. But they're still searching for answers.
The other point to mention from Friday's game is Stammen, who gave up three hits and a walk with two outs in the fifth inning, halving the Nationals' four-run lead and taking their footing from sturdy to tenuous. The five-pitch walk to Rickie Weeks was particularly painful; Stammen sprayed his fastball and changeup on both sides of the pate, not even getting anything close enough for Weeks to chase after a first-pitch swinging strike. The walk opened up the rest of the inning, allowed the Brewers back in the game and got the Nationals digging into their bullpen at least an inning before they should have had to. So Stammen has to shoulder some blame for the loss, even if he didn't get it in the box score.
All in all, a puzzling, frustrating night for the Nationals. They had a chance to continue building some momentum on this road trip and give themselves a good shot to win the series, and they frittered it away. They're back at it with J.D. Martin on the mound tomorrow night at 7:10 p.m.