For a team with one of baseball’s best bullpens, you would not expect the Washington Nationals to be 2-8 in extra-inning games. Well, you might if you saw how they pitched tonight.
After strong starts from Chris Tillman and Stephen Strasburg led to extras, the Baltimore Orioles (49-40) crushed three home runs in a six-run 11th, ending their dismantling of the Nationals (48-40) with an 8-2 final.
Craig Stammen (L, 0-4) got absolutely lit up in the 11th, giving up two home runs and three runs before recording and out, and getting pulled before he could get out of the frame. His final line was ugly: 0.2 IP, 5 H, 5 ER, 0 BB, 1 K. Even Aaron Barrett had a tough time getting the job done: he gave up a two run homer before getting the inning’s final out.
Believe it or not, the game began as a pitcher’s duel. Through three innings, each team had just one hit, and seemed to be flailing. But in the fourth, Nelson Cruz took advantage of a pitch that Strasburg left up and hammered it to right, where it just snuck over the wall to give Baltimore the 2-0 lead.
The home run was Cruz’s MLB-leading 28th of the season. He has undergone a renaissance in Charm City, being voted as the AL’s starting designated hitter in the All-Star game after signing a one-year, $8M deal this offseason.
After Baltimore broke through, the Nats seemed to have no offensive traction through five innings, having mustered just three baserunners. But Denard Span led off the inning with a single, bringing up All-Star Final Vote candidate Anthony Rendon. Although he said he would not campaign, he made his case all the same with a two-run shot to right center, tying the game.
In the next half inning, as if to show off what a complete player he is, wowed with the glove as well. A hard-hit grounder deflected off of Strasburg, and Rendon hustled to get to the slowed-down ball. Nearly falling down, he made a sidearm throw to just barely nail the runner at first.
One two run homer aside, both starters were able to largely stifle the opposing hitters. Strasburg was stellar, if not at his absolute best. In seven innings of work, he struck out nine Orioles, giving up two runs on four hits and walking none. Most notably, his velocity was up quite a bit too, as he scraped 97 in the first inning and was as high as 96 all the way in his final inning, despite 92-degree heat at first pitch.
Manager Matt Williams commented after the game that “With the exception of the one pitch to Cruz, he was really good,” praising his starter’s command and stuff.
Tillman’s line was the exact same as Strasburg’s, except for one more hit, one more walk, and one fewer strikeout. Three of the five hits the Nats got off of him came in the final three innings he pitched.
Another story from the beginning of this game was the first breakdown of Ryan Zimmerman’s defense. He had been nothing but great from third base since Bryce Harper’s return a week ago, including making a great play to snag a grounder and steal a hit early tonight, but his first truly bad throw came in the eighth.
The Orioles were threatening with runners on first and second, when Manny Machado grounded to third. Zimmerman easily picked it up and stepped on third for the force, but his throw resembled the flight of a paper airplane as it sliced and ended up 15 feet right of first instead of ending the inning.
Fortunately, it was slow enough that Adam LaRoche was able to move and catch it, and Tyler Clippard escaped the jam with a flyout from the next batter, but Zimmerman’s errant throw could easily have cost the Nats a run.
However, Williams was unconcerned with Zimmerman’s ability to handle the hot corner.
“I’m not worried about it,” he said. “He made plays all over the diamond tonight.”
As the game wore on, still tied 2-2, both teams had their chances. The Orioles had two on with one out in the eighth but could not cash in, and the Nationals had the same in the bottom of the ninth. After a Zimmerman double, the Orioles walked Harper to get to Ian Desmond, who was 11-for-17 in his career after an intentional walk. But he struck out, and so did Wilson Ramos, to send the game to extras.
In extras, not much of note occurred before the Orioles seized control and never let up. The Nats can only look to tomorrow, and hope that they can take advantage of a starter coming off the DL in Bud Norris, and an exhausted bullpen that was one inning away from putting its first baseman on the mound on Sunday.