At the seventh-inning stretch of tonight's game, the Nationals had a 5-1 lead on the Braves. They were riding a career-high 11 strikeouts from Jordan Zimmermann, and appeared to be on their way to a sweep, a 5-4 road trip and a winning record for the season.
Within an hour, they'd lost to the Braves after Sean Burnett gave up a grand slam, Doug Slaten was asked to pitch three innings and Brian McCann tagged a high inside fastball off Slaten for the game-winning run.
Now, they're 18-19, having finished the road trip 4-5 and lost a game it looked like they had in hand. And there were a couple things that happened in the late innings that were tough to explain.
The Nationals were upset about a couple check swing calls that didn't go their way - one in particular that went Brooks Conrad's way on the walk Burnett gave up before allowing his grand slam to Martin Prado - but Zimmermann also benefitted from a few of those from home plate umpire Jim Joyce. And Burnett, who has allowed eight runs in his last five innings, had to come in with a couple men on base because manager Jim Riggleman wanted to get Zimmermann out after 103 pitches.
The team will be cautious with Zimmermann this year as he goes through his first full season after Tommy John surgery, and Riggleman probably wanted to get him out with a chance to win the game, but he was working with a thin bullpen with Todd Coffey and Tyler Clippard needing a night off and Drew Storen being saved for a lead.
That lack of depth came back to bite the Nationals in the end when Slaten, who had never thrown three innings in a game and had thrown two innings only four times, was asked to pitch the 10th after having already worked the eighth and ninth. That Slaten was still in the game, though, shows how little trust Riggleman has in wild fireballer Henry Rodriguez and Rule 5 pick Brian Broderick. If two members of his bullpen were unavailable and a third was being saved for a lead, Riggleman had better have more than two options he can use in an extra-inning game at the end of a three-city road trip.
The Nationals have two relievers they like at Triple-A Syracuse (Collin Balester and Cole Kimball), and it might be time to take a look at them soon. Otherwise, they might have to give their starters a batter or two more to work out of jams, or let Storen, their de facto closer (call him what you want; he's definitely being used like one) work in a tie game. The current setup seems untenable.
In the end, the Nationals won two series after being swept in Philadelphia, and come back home playing good baseball. But they could have swept the Braves tonight, and the reasons why they didn't will linger for a while.