Hindsight was definitely 20-20 on Saturday, as what-ifs abounded after the Washington Nationals’ (10-8) 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals (11-7).
What if Anthony Rendon hadn’t made his first error of the season in the second inning, which ultimately led to St. Louis scoring three unearned runs? What if Bryce Harper hadn’t been pulled from the game in the sixth inning, and was allowed to bat with two men on base and one out in the bottom of the ninth? What if Jayson Werth hadn’t struck out for the third time that game, on a sequence of three 98, 99 and 99 mph fastballs to end it?
We’ll never know the answers to the what-ifs, only the facts of what did happen in the Nationals’ eighth loss of the season.
First, the error. The Nationals lead the majors with an egregious 20 errors in 18 games. Good teams like the Cardinals capitalize on mistakes, and that is precisely what they did in this game.
St. Louis took the lead in the second inning after a throwing error by third baseman Rendon, who had fielded pristinely until Saturday. The mistake extended the inning and allowed the Cardinals’ eighth and ninth hitters, catcher Tony Cruz and pitcher Lance Lynn, to hit an RBI single and an RBI double to bring home the Cardinals’ first three runs of the game.
The Cards didn’t score again until the seventh inning, when Jordan Zimmermann hit Mark Ellis with a pitch. Two singles later, they scored another run, establishing a lead that would hold the rest of the game.
Despite a solid start, Zimmermann took the loss for the Nationals. Zimmermann, who has never beaten the Cardinals in seven starts against them, threw seven innings, and gave up only one earned run (plus the three unearned) on seven hits and one walk with six strikeouts.
Though a Nationals hitter reached base in every inning, they managed to score only three times: first on a home run from Danny Espinosa in the fifth inning, again after Adam LaRoche and Rendon hit back-to-back doubles in the eighth, and finally when Kevin Frandsen grounded out following a walk and a balk in the bottom of the ninth.
Frandsen entered the game in the top of the seventh inning to play left field in place of Harper. After the game, manager Matt Williams said he benched Harper, whose catch phrase in team promotions is “Nothing but hustle,” for “lack of hustle,” presumably on this groundout in the bottom of the sixth inning (video).
When asked why Harper was benched, Williams said, “the inability to run 90 feet.”
“We made an agreement. This team made an agreement that when we play the game we hustle at all times, we would play the game with intensity and the willingness to win,” Williams said. “As it turned out, his spot came up, Kevin Franden put on a nice AB against Rosenthal, but his spot came up with the ability to win the game. That’s a shame for his teammates.
“We made that agreement, and you have to live up to it. Today he didn’t.”
With Harper’s .381 batting average and .619 slugging percentage over his last six games, the Nationals were statistically more likely to win the game in the ninth inning had Harper come to bat.
But he did not. The what-if remains, and perhaps Harper will get another opportunity in the series finale on Sunday as the Nationals look to split the series.
– Espinosa’s home run was his first since May 5, 2013, and the improvements he has made in a year have certainly been showing so far this season. His strikeout percentage is down to 23.3 percent from 28.1 in 2013, and his walk percentage is up to 4.7 percent from 2.4. His slash line is .275/.326/.450 compared to .158/.193/.272 last year, and overall he has seemed more comfortable at the plate. With Ryan Zimmerman out of the infield with a fractured thumb, the Nationals need Espinosa to perform as a contributing member of the offense. So far, he hasn’t been disappointing.
– After missing the last week of games with a concussion, Denard Span went 2-for-5, and was the only National besides Rendon with multiple hits.