There are any number of reasons, many of them having already been outlined over the last month, for the Nationals’ hugely disappointing 2018 season. But if anyone was having trouble remembering, two of them were on full display today for all to see during a calamitous top of the fifth that proved the decisive frame of a 9-4 loss to the Brewers.
The Nationals’ pitching staff - most notably the back end of the rotation and the left-handed portion of the bullpen - have been flaws all along. So, at times, has the management of that pitching staff by Davey Martinez and his chief consultants in the dugout.
The Nats lost today’s game because Jefry Rodriguez, a rookie starter yet to prove he can consistently complete five innings, served up a three-run homer in a critical situation on a day in which he also issued seven walks. And they lost today’s game because Tim Collins, the latest in a line of lefties tasked with getting left-handed batters out, went walk-grand slam-walk to the first three batters he faced in relief of Rodriguez to turn a two-run lead into a five-run deficit.
It was ugly, all of it. But it’s not unfair to question whether both pitchers were given the best possible opportunity to succeed by the men in the dugout who made a series of questionable decisions during that fateful inning: Martinez, pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and bench coach Chip Hale. The former is a rookie manager; the latter two have considerable experience with other franchises.
After an inspiring, come-from-behind victory early Sunday morning after a long rain delay, the Nationals were back on the field some 12 hours later seeking a second straight series win over a playoff contender. And after four innings, they were in reasonable position to do it, up 4-2 thanks to Wilmer Difo’s solo homer and back-to-back RBI singles by Juan Soto and Mark Reynolds.
Rodriguez had been erratic from the outset, throwing six straight balls to begin his afternoon and allowing two runs in the first, then loading the bases with three straight walks in the third. After four innings, his pitch count was 82. He was allowed to bat for himself, then re-take the mound for the top of the fifth.
“I felt good,” the rookie starter said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “The only mindset I had was: Keep battling, keep battling, keep battling throughout the inning.”
The Brewers had stacked the top of their lineup with five consecutive left-handed batters, with four right-handed hitters following them. The 3-4-5 hitters were due up, so Collins was warming up in the Nationals bullpen shortly after the inning began.
Rodriguez, though, retired two of those three batters, allowing a double to Eric Thames in between flyouts. So now, with the right-handed portion of the lineup ready to bat, Collins took a seat in the bullpen and Austen Williams (who earned his first major league promotion on Saturday) began warming.
“We thought about it,” Martinez said. “If it really gets (dicey), Williams will come in the game. But we got two outs and we had the bottom of the order up. But we sat Collins down knowing that if he has to face the top of the order and they’re all lefties, we can do that. So he sat down.”
Rodriguez could have ended everything before anything went wrong had he been able to field Manny Piña’s comebacker, but alas he could not so the inning continued. The rookie starter fell behind 2-0 to Keon Broxton, then left a fastball over the plate that was hammered to center field for a three-run homer.
With his pitch count approaching triple digits and Williams warm in the pen, Rodriguez might have been pulled after the home run. But he remained on the mound and proceeded to give up a first-pitch single to Orlando Arcia, then inexplicably walked Brandon Woodruff - a reliever - on four pitches.
“It’s the bottom of the order,” Martinez said. “To that point, nobody really hit the ball very hard. Then all of a sudden, Arcia’s little bloop line drive we couldn’t make the play on. ... I want to see him go through those struggles, because if he’s going to pitch here, he’s got to do that. It’s the bottom of the order.”
The four-pitch walk of the pitcher, though, did finally convince Martinez to emerge from the dugout and signal to the bullpen. Except as this was playing out, Williams had taken a seat again and Collins was back warming up in a hurry on the mound, because the left-handed portion of the Milwaukee lineup had come back around again.
Asked about the unusual, up-and-down nature of that inning in the bullpen, Collins insisted it wasn’t a problem.
“I don’t think there’s anything normal in the bullpen,” the lefty said. “Those are situations you just have to adjust to. Being a bullpen guy, sometimes you’re gonna get up and sit down, get up and sit down. It’s just a matter of not flipping the switch off when you have to sit down. That’s certainly not an excuse for what happened today. Just a matter of executing pitches. Shouldn’t happen.”
What did happen was this: The first pitch Collins threw to pinch-hitter Hernán Pérez sailed to the backstop. He would then walk Pérez on four pitches to load the bases. And then, after falling behind 2-0 to Christian Yelich, he served up a grand slam that left many in the crowd of 33,032 booing.
“I think today was just a rough day,” said Collins, who also walked Travis Shaw on five pitches following the grand slam and wound up throwing only 4-of-16 overall pitches for strikes. “Unfortunately, in my position, you can’t afford to have those days. Just one of those days. I didn’t come in and execute my pitches, and it resulted in what happened.”
Williams, meanwhile, warmed up twice in the fifth but did not pitch. He finally entered for the top of the sixth and proceeded to toss two scoreless innings in a major league debut that was satisfying personally but meant little his team’s chances of winning this game.
It should be noted the Nationals bullpen was not at full strength today. Martinez said after the game that Jimmy Cordero and Matt Grace (who both pitched both Friday and Saturday) were unavailable. So was Wander Suero, who took a comebacker off his left hand on Saturday night. Martinez wanted to avoid using Koda Glover, but he wound up pitching the top of the ninth out of necessity.
The options at the manager’s disposal were far from ideal. As has often been the case this season.
But the management of those who were available was far from ideal as well. As has sometimes been the case this season.