The critical pitching decision that loomed over a Nationals loss

The modern day manager’s job has far more to do with player and media relations than in-game strategy, but sometimes a specific situation does crop up in a ballgame that requires a key decision by the man in charge.

And in those instances, the manager in question has to weigh competing factors and pick the one he believes makes the most sense at the time. Neither available option may be that appealing, but in those cases you play the percentages or go with your gut and hope for the best.

Dusty Baker faced one of those moments this afternoon at Nationals Park. It came with one out in the top of the sixth, his Nationals leading the Mariners 2-0, Nelson Cruz stepping to the plate with two men on base.

Gio Gonzalez was on the mound, having navigated wildness to carry a no-hitter into the fifth inning but then letting five of the last eight batters he faced reach safely. His pitch count stood at 96. He had surprisingly strong career numbers against the fearsome Cruz, who was 1-for-15 with four walks and six strikeouts ... though 10 of those head-to-head at-bats had come way back in 2010-11 when Gonzalez still pitched for the Athletics.

Jacob Turner was in the bullpen, ready to enter. He had faced Cruz only once, last season, with the slugger recording a single in the at-bat. Matt Albers also was considered for the spot in advance, but the big right-hander had surrendered two homers in 10 career encounters with Cruz and wasn’t warming in the ‘pen at that moment.

So if you’re managing from the top step of the dugout, what information are you processing in that moment?

Gonzalez-Frustrated-Red-Sidebar.jpg“I saw a couple balls hit hard right after we scored,” said Baker, whose team had just taken the 2-0 lead in the previous half-inning. “(Gonzalez) was struggling all day. It was kind of like Houdini that got out of trouble a bunch. He was 2-0 on everybody. Very few first-pitch strikes. Three-and-two on a lot of hitters. And his pitch count was extremely high, with a dangerous hitter up there. Nelson Cruz, this guy’s hit 40 home runs almost every year, and he’s their top RBI guy.”

Gonzalez, as you would expect, wanted to stay in the game. He knew he had been successful against Cruz in his career and had retired him twice already today, striking him out and getting him to fly out to right. And he felt like he hadn’t had much opportunity to settle into that sixth inning.

“It’s just a tough situation,” Gonzalez said. “You look at as a starter, a guy that wants to be deep in the game, you want to be in that inning. You want to understand that situation yourself. That’s a learning curve that I wish I could have back and understand what just happened. But it wasn’t an easy task for Dusty. I put him in a situation that was tough. Just one of those innings.”

Baker felt the odds of Gonzalez retiring Cruz a third straight time weren’t great.

“I know Gio wanted to stay in the game,” the manager said. “But I thought the fresh arm ... it’s the third time around (the lineup). That third or fourth time around, you’re kind of flirting with danger, with a dangerous hitter up there.”

And so Baker made the long, slow walk to the mound, took the ball from his starter, who made the long walk back to the dugout with a look that suggested he wasn’t too pleased with the decision.

In from the bullpen came Turner, who has pitched well in a variety of roles this season, now entrusted to pitch out of the bullpen with Joe Ross back as the club’s No. 5 starter.

Turner fell behind in the count 2-1, then got the call from catcher Jose Lobaton for a slider. With two on and one out, a ground ball was in order.

“In that situation, I’m trying to get a double play,” the pitcher said. “I’m trying to execute a slider down and away. It was middle-middle. So...”

Yes, so. Turner’s 2-1 slider didn’t move much at all, hanging right over the inner half of the plate at 87 mph. Cruz belted it to left-center field, then circled the bases with the three-run homer that changed the entire complexion of this game.

It was poor execution of a well-intentioned pitch, of that there is no doubt. That it happened to wind up over the fence was no surprise, either, at least for this particular team’s relief corps.

The Nationals bullpen has now allowed 24 home runs in 46 games this season. They have allowed homers at a rate of 1.64 per nine innings, which ranks 28th out of 30 major league bullpens. Last year’s group had a home run rate of 0.86 per nine innings, fifth-best in the majors.

Mistake pitches do tend to get hit hard. But the rate at which they have left the yard altogether this season is astonishing.

“Shoot, I’ve been searching my brain as to why,” Baker said. “Sometimes there is no explanation. Sometimes, you got a mistake, especially a mistake slider to a hitter with power, it ends up over the fence.”

Said Turner: “I’m trying to execute a pitch. I didn’t execute the pitch. That’s what it comes down to. Yeah, we make mistakes, and sometimes they don’t hit them. But good hitters like that are going to capitalize.”

There were other moments in today’s game that contributed to the Nationals’ 4-2 loss. There were other opportunities to alter the outcome. But none as significant as the Cruz at-bat in the top of the sixth.

Who knows what would have happened had Baker left Gonzalez in. Maybe the lefty would’ve gotten out of the inning. Maybe he was due to give up a laser to Cruz.

Or maybe had Turner simply made a better 2-1 pitch, the story would be different. We’ll never know.

All we know is what we saw with our eyes, what the percentages said and what Baker ultimately decided to do with all the information available to him.

“That’s what I saw,” the manager said. “It didn’t work. My responsibility. I was put in that position in order to make that decision.”

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