The Washington Nationals may be baseball’s best team from the seventh inning on, but after tonight, they could be its worst after the 14th.
The Nats (23-21) trailed after seven innings of a pitcher’s duel before a ninth-inning comeback against Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman tied the game, and five scoreless innings later, the Cincinnati Reds (20-23) grabbed their final lead on a two-run homer to beat the Nats, 4-3, in 15 innings.
After battling to force extras, the Nats had numerous chances, nearly capitalizing on some, but amazing defense by the Reds allowed them to hang around. In the 12th, the Nats had a runner on third with two outs, but Brandon Phillips went airborne to snag a Wilson Ramos liner and prevent the walkoff. It was the same situation in the 14th, but Billy Hamilton made a sliding catch in center to rob Anthony Rendon of the game-winner.
After eight scoreless relief innings from Ryan Mattheus, Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, and Aaron Barrett, the Nats’ MLB-best bullpen finally cracked. Ross Detwiler (L, 0-2) gave up a two-run homer to Todd Frazier in the 15th to put Cincinnati on top for good.
But even after that blow, the Nats kept fighting. A Greg Dobbs single scored Ian Desmond with two outs in the home half of the 15th, but Danny Espinosa flied out to the warning track against Logan Ondrusek (W, 1-2) to end the game.
The story earlier in the game was a pitcher’s duel, as fellow 2009 draftees and childhood teammates Stephen Strasburg and Mike Leake battled it out.
Strasburg had a strong, if strange, outing. He pitched seven innings, allowing six hits, two earned runs, a walk, and four strikeouts. But the two runners who scored both reached when they were hit by pitches, which is uncharacteristic for Strasburg. He had only hit one batter in his previous nine starts combined. Nevertheless, he pitched well, and displayed some mental maturity in pitching around an error in the second inning. Jayson Werth dropped an absolute can of corn in right field, turning an out into a runner on second, but Strasburg calmly got the next three outs to escape the jam.
Leake, chosen seven picks behind Strasburg in the 2009 MLB Draft, has become a strong pitcher in his own right, entering tonight’s game with a 3.09 ERA. As if motivated by facing a pitcher taken above him, he locked down the Nats for the beginning of the night. His final line was 6.2 innings pitched, seven hits, one run, one walk, and four strikeouts, but he did an impressive job of scattering the baserunners he did give up. The Nats managed two hits in an inning only twice: a pair of ground-ball singles in the fifth, and two singles in the seventh, the second of which drove in the Nats’ only run against him.
While Leake deserves credit for his strong showing, the Nats once again found themselves unable to deliver with runners on base. Denard Span’s RBI single in the seventh was the Nats’ only hit in nine opportunities with a runner in scoring position in regulation, and one of just two Nats hits before extras with a runner anywhere on base.
But in the bottom of the ninth, the Nats didn’t need a hit with a runner in scoring position. Espinosa doubled to open the inning off of Chapman, and a pair of sacrifice flies brought him home to knot the score against the flamethrowing Cuban.
During the bonus baseball, both teams traded getting into trouble. The Reds got runners to scoring position in the 10th, 11th, 13th, and 14th, while the Nats did so in the 12th and 14th. By the time Frazier broke through, the Nats had nearly won the game twice over, and the Reds had come close too. But both teams struggled in the clutch. They were a combined 4-for-42 (.095) with runners in scoring position by the end of the game, with two hits in 24 chances for Cincinnati and two in 18 for Washington.
After the tough defeat, the Nats must now rebound to face NL ERA leader Johnny Cueto, who has posted an unreal 1.25 ERA through nine starts, or risk losing the series at home to a sub-.500 team.
Roger Bernadina, the former Nats outfielder who was designated for assignment last season after struggling mightily, made a pinch-hit appearance for Cincinnati and received a nice ovation. He battled Mattheus, but would eventually ground out. In 39 at-bats for the Reds this year, he is hitting .128/.292/.154.
Mattheus pitched two scoreless innings, bringing his total with the parent club this season to five innings, in which he has allowed no runs, four hits, a walk, and one strikeout. He had a challenging 2013, with a 6.37 ERA and a two-month DL stint from punching a locker, but has looked good when called upon by the Nats so far.
At 15 innings, the game was the longest in Nationals Park history and tied for the longest in Nationals history. The team has played two 15-inning games in Atlanta over the last five years. Despite the marathon, this game fell far short of the franchise record. The Montreal Expos lost to the Dodgers, 1-0, in 22 innings in August 1989.