The Nationals' eight-game win streak was bound to end sometime. When it finally reached its conclusion, stopping the team's surge a game short of the .500 mark, the Nationals turned in the kind of mistake-filled effort from which they'd distanced themselves in the last few weeks. After the game, most in the Nationals clubhouse were treating it as a hiccup, not a reversal, but they'll have to wait until Tuesday to flush it from their memories.
"We've been playing good ball," outfielder Jayson Werth said. "We dropped a game today, but we won the series and we're having a good homestand. We've got a day off to rejuvenate a little bit, and we'll get back on the horse on Tuesday."
At 34-36 after 70 games, the Nationals can't leave for the road this weekend with a .500 record. They'd have to sweep the Mariners to get above .500, or try to continue their climb this weekend in Chicago.
The schedule sets up favorably for the Nationals in the next few weeks, but they stumbled on Sunday.
"We played bad, and we lost. That's what happens when you play that way," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We've got a day off to forget about that, come back Tuesday and get back to the kind of baseball we were playing."
Danny Espinosa: The more he plays, the more believers Espinosa seems to make around the game that he's a special talent. He showed why again on Sunday with an impressive day both at the plate and in the field. He started one of the Nationals' four double plays and turned the other three. He made an impressive stop on a hard hopper, and threw a strike to home plate to nail Chris Jakubauskas on J.J. Hardy's double in the fifth. And at the plate, he drove in a run with a double and another with a homer. He's got 13 homers and 43 RBI, which are both tied for the team lead. He's a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate, and if he gets his batting average up, he could be an All-Star Game darkhorse.
Roger Bernadina: The center fielder has homered in three straight games now, and added a pair of infield hits to his day on Sunday. He bobbled a ball in center field after a base hit, but it was nowhere near the worst of the Nationals' defensive misplays. Bernadina will continue to get playing time in center with Rick Ankiel on the disabled list. Consistency is always what's stopped him from cementing a starting job, but days like Sunday show he's got the skills to do it.
Sean Burnett: After struggling through May and early June, Burnett seems to be righting himself on the mound. He pitched a scoreless inning on Sunday, and now has three straight appearances without giving up a run. Of the 17 pitches he threw, 12 were sinkers and five were changeups; Burnett, at least for now, is staying away from the slider that made him so tough on right-handers last year but has gotten him in trouble this year.
Tom Gorzelanny: The left-hander was struggling before he went on the disabled list, and when he came off of it on Sunday, it didn't look like much had changed. He allowed five runs (four earned) on 10 hits in 4 2/3 innings, continuing to leave too many pitches up in the strike zone. "I felt good today. I felt strong," Gorzelanny said. "I was just leaving balls up. I went back and looked at everything, and saw every ball that was hit, and it was about waist-high. You can't be successful with pitches like that."
Werth: In right field, he made an error in the third inning and was bailed out by Espinosa after he had a tough time retrieving Hardy's double. And at the plate, he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. He's now hitting .236 for the season. "It feels I'll have a good day, feel locked in and not have a whole lot to show for it," Werth said. "Today, they made some good pitches on me, and I got behind a couple times. I skied a ball I thought I was right on, and just missed it. I drove one pretty good to right field. It was just one of those days."
Todd Coffey: He's been solid out of the bullpen lately, but when the Nationals had pulled within two runs of the Orioles in the sixth, Coffey couldn't hold Baltimore down. He gave up a homer at the end of a 12-pitch at-bat to Mark Reynolds in the sixth inning that put the Orioles back up by three.
In Case You Missed It:
* Asked why he didn't take Gorzelanny out earlier - when the starter began the fifth by giving up a hit to Jakubauskas (the opposing pitcher) and then allowed hits to three of the the next four batters - Riggleman said. "You can do that, but those starters, they go to hunt for you. If you don't give them a chance to get through five and do their thing, the repercussions of that are not favorable. He hadn't thrown many pitches, so I thought the right thing to do was to let him go out there and try to pitch the fifth."
Scoff at that if you like, but that's a reality of modern baseball, folks. More wins mean more money for pitchers - especially ones who are in their arbitration years like Gorzelanny - and to get a win, a pitcher has to throw five innings. That was part of the argument between Riggleman and Jason Marquis during the Nationals' 17-5 win in Baltimore last month, and in the course of a 162-game season, leaving a starter in is a way to build some goodwill with players. The game was only 3-2 going into the fifth, and Riggleman wasn't going to get relievers up in the bullpen before the fifth unless there was a problem. That's an easy decision for fans and reporters to second-guess, but for the manager, there are other things to consider. As flawed a statistic as wins might be, they're still a key point in arbitration cases and free agency.
* Zimmerman made a throwing error in the second inning, firing high with his new throwing motion to first base, and ate another throw later in the inning we've grown used to seeing him make on a ball he charged. He also took a few ground balls at third before the third inning, taking a couple steps before each throw to first. But on the two ground balls he had later in the game, Zimmerman looked fine. He made a sidearm throw to start a 5-4-3 double play in the ninth. "Sidearm is the same," Zimmerman said. "The thing that I changed most is on the routine ball. I was not using my legs. But when you're on the run or on a slow roller, you really have no time to think about what you're doing. You just kind of throw it. Before, when I was a little hurt, I guess I was compensating for certain things, just doing anything to try and get it over there. Now that I'm healthy, we're focusing on being more efficient. I feel great. I got a couple balls later in the game, and everything went great. It was just a bad throw (in the first inning).
1. Are you concerned at all with Zimmerman's throwing motion, or do you look at the throw yesterday as an isolated mistake? I wrote a little more about that here yesterday.
2. With the winning streak over, it's time to look back and reflect: Did this run change your opinion of what the 2011 Nationals are capable of? In other words, are you back in the mode of thinking this team is capable of playing meaningful games late in the season, or do you just appreciate the run for what it was and assume the Nationals are still a year away?
Leave your answers in the comments section. Oh, and for those interested in what I was doing on Saturday, here are a couple pictures of me at the Spartan Race. I ran it with a bunch of friends from my church in Reston, and had a blast climbing over walls, running through mud, dodging paintballs, throwing spears and the like. Everything but the 100-yard crawl through mud under barbed wire was fun - and now I'm seriously considering the Tough Mudder in October. The adventure race thing has become kind of a craze, and I'd highly recommend it.
I'll have another post later today on what the win streak might mean to the Nationals as they head into July. Talk to you later.