A pair of errant throws from the usually stable Nationals’ bullpen were the difference in the game this afternoon, as the Nationals fell to the Rockies 4-3 in their last game before the All-Star Break. The Nationals wasted a “real jewel” pitched by Jordan Zimmermann, who went 7 full, giving up just a single run on three hits. Tyler Clippard, nominally untouchable this season, gave up a run on a double and a wild pitch in the ninth, just an inning after 3 hits off Sean Burnett and a wild pitch from Michael Gonzalez put the game in jeopardy.
It was rare to see the Nationals’ bullpen in such a struggle, given that they’ve racked up accolade after accolade, but perhaps like the rest of the city, after 11 straight days of 95° heat, there was a breaking point after all. Though Gonzalez and Clippard would both recover and finish their innings, it was enough to see them battle. The Nationals would strand 5 on the base paths and go just 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position, as their streaky offense was once again beguiled by Rockies pitching. Jeremy Guthrie would surrender just a pair of runs in 6 full, both coming on Ian Desmond’s 17th home run of the year in the fourth inning.
“We had our opportunities,” said Davey Johnson after the game, but he was quick to stand up for the 49-34 start, the best in the National League. The Nats have gone 15-7-4 in series so far this season, and the games that they’ve lost they’ve been competitive. Even their worst loss of the year, a 9-3 debacle against the Phillies, was competitive up until the end of the game. The club has been engineered by Mike Rizzo to put pitching first, and that’s been a dramatic success. Today’s game was symptomatic of the blueprint in effect: in the second inning, with the bases loaded and no outs, the Rockies only made it out of there with a single run.
The second half will be the bigger challenge for the Nationals, but they stand ready and equipped to deal with it. Ian Desmond, though he’s missing the game for an “oblique strain” has never been hotter, and is second in the National League for extra-base hits. Bryce Harper continues to force close attention on his offensive capabilities, and now that Ryan Zimmerman is heating up, he’ll see more pitches to hit.
Though the 2005 Nationals may have seen a meteoric return to earth in their second half, I would remind Nats fans that this isn’t that team by any stretch of the imagination. The combined and collected talents that make up the 25-man roster are so far ahead of where that team was at its height that comparison is folly. Little losses like today’s are going to dot the landscape of any team, not just the bad ones, so be prepared and deal with them. This isn’t football, any one loss isn’t worth such a large percentage of the final total as to be devastating.
In one word: Believe.