While it seems the Nats starters are making a habit of giving up big first innings, the rest of the team is making a habit of exciting comebacks.
Stephen Strasburg gave up a three-run home run in the first after an error, but when the staff allowed no more runs from there on out, the Washington Nationals (17-12) managed a comeback against Cliff Lee and the Philadelphia Phillies (13-14) bullpen, eventually grabbing a 5-3 win.
Looking at his line score, Strasburg had a great start. He gave up no earned runs on six hits, a walk, and five strikeouts in six innings. But three of those hits came in the first inning, and the third was a three-run blast from ex-Nat Marlon Byrd. Byrd’s bomb came with two outs, and was preceded by Jayson Werth dropping a foul fly ball from him.
In addition to another defensive lapse, this was the third time in seven starts Strasburg has struggled in the first inning. In seven first innings this season, he has allowed ten hits, nine runs, six earned runs, and a walk. Those numbers are good for a 7.71 ERA and a 1.57 WHIP, but there is reason to believe these are highly inflated. The nine runs have come on three three-run homers, and having recorded only two fly ball outs, his HR/FB ratio is a sky-high 60%, while a terrible one for a full season would not even reach 15%. The big first innings are a concerning trend, but one that does not seem likely to continue.
The comeback began in the third, when Tyler Moore grabbed the Nats’ first hit off of Lee with a solo homer to left, cutting the lead to 3-1. Denard Span recorded an RBI groundout in the fifth, but that was as far as the Nats would get against Lee, who gave up one earned run four hits and two walks against five strikeouts in seven innings.
The tide finally turned when Philly’s relievers, owners of the fourth-worst bullpen ERA in baseball, entered the equation. The Nats opened the eighth with five consecutive hits off of Mike Adams (L, 1-1) and Jake Diekman, with RBI hits from Anthony Rendon, Adam LaRoche, and Ian Desmond. Diekman rebounded to strike out the side, but it was too little, too late.
Tyler Clippard had a bit of an adventure in the eighth, but managed to post a scoreless inning after opening the frame with a single and a walk. In the ninth, Rafael Soriano got a double play called on runner interference after a walk, and faced just three batters in his seventh save and 23rd consecutive scoreless outing going back to last season. #BelieveInSoriano, people.
As CSN’s Mark Zuckerman raised on Twitter during Clippard’s outing, hasn’t Drew Storen shown enough to wrest the eighth-inning job from Clippard? He has allowed one run in 9.2 innings with a 12:1 strikeout to walk ratio, while Clip has given up eight (four earned) in 13.2 innings with a 2:1 K:BB ratio. This will be Matt Williams’ first test of his loyalty to his players and their established roles, and he’s doing a poor job so far.
Jayson Werth, long a reliable, if unspectacular, defender, has seen his struggles in the outfield this season. According to Fangraphs, he has been worth five runs below average on defense so far this season, while he had never been worse than negative three in a full season before. His bat is way more than enough to keep him productive, but a poor job on defense can really cut into his value.
With tonight’s comeback, the Nats are outscoring opponents 60-25 from the seventh inning on, thanks to their .815 OPS and MLB-best 1.68 ERA over those innings. Sabermetricians would tell you that clutch isn’t a skill, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.