Sports can give us moments we’ll never forget, for all the wrong reasons. The ball bouncing off Ian Desmond’s glove in Game 5. Pablo Sandoval ripping a game-tying double down the line in Game 2. Now Nationals fans have a third moment: the slow inexorable bullpen meltdown in the 7th inning on Tuesday night. If you didn’t witness the Nats bullpen giving up 6 runs in one inning to lose a 7-1 lead last night, you wouldn’t have believed it.
Then again, if you watched the Cardinals series last week and game 1 of this Mets series on Monday, last night’s 7th inning meltdown was a little bit foreseeable. When Blake Treinen entered the game in the top of the 7th on Tuesday night with a fresh 7-1 lead, even the most optimistic Nats fan was a little worried. Just get through the seventh. When Treinen gave up a hit and walked a batter (an unpardonable sin with a 6 run lead), panic started to set in. Panic in this situation–in almost any other context–would have been completely unreasonable. Teams don’t routinely blow 6 run leads after the 6th inning. But we’ve seen this movie before, and so has Matt Williams. When Treinen gave up another single to make to the score 7-2, Williams chose not to take any chances. He brought in his most reliable available left-handed reliever, Felipe Rivero. But Rivero didn’t look sharp, pitching on a third consecutive day. He walked the bases loaded (again an unpardonable sin with a 6 run lead) and then walked in a run. Williams, again not taking chances, brought in Drew Storen. Williams obviously imagined a quick out and then a quick 8th inning before turning the game over to Jonathan Papelbon in the 9th.
But Storen was wild. He wasn’t tired like Rivero but his mechanics were just as skewed. He gave up a base-clearing double to Yoenis Cespedes and suddenly the game was 7-6. The next three at bats were the most painful I’ve ever personally witnessed. Storen was rattled. Perhaps it was the pressure. Maybe it was the ghosts of Game 5 and Game 2. Maybe Drew simply didn’t have his best stuff, he knew it, and he was afraid to pitch normally. Whether he was nervous or simply didn’t trust his stuff, the result was the same. A complete and total meltdown: and not a “meltdown” like Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS, where Storen nibbled at the corners and couldn’t get a called third strike. Storen wasn’t even close on his pitches Tuesday night. His location was so poor Wilson Ramos had trouble catching the pitches since he had no clue where they would end up. Whatever stood on the mound in the 7th inning last night wasn’t Drew Storen. It was a broken pitcher.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. The season is over. There’s a mathematical chance of catching the Mets, but in all likelihood, last night’s meltdown ended the NL East division race.
Where do we go from here?
Drew Storen’s career as a National is likely over. After next season, he’s a free agent. He still has great stuff and there will be a closer-needy team willing to pay for him. The Papelbon-Storen experiment simply didn’t work. It should have, but it didn’t. With Papelbon signed through next season, Storen probably would have been traded this offseason anyway, but another critical meltdown with the season on the line makes it almost a certainty. If anyone ever needed a change of scenery, it’s Drew Storen.
And Matt Williams. Matty just can’t quite seem to get it right, although he has so little to work with in the bullpen. I give credit to Williams for actually managing this game like it was a must-win (he was also probably managing to save his job). He pulled Zimmermann before it was too late. He replaced Treinen when it was time. After watching Rivero load the bases with horrific control, Williams probably should have pulled the plug before he was allowed to walk in a run. But at least he wasn’t afraid to turn to his “8th inning guy” when he was truly needed in the 7th. After seeing Storen load the bases too, Williams also let Storen face one too many batters. I realize there were no reliable options left in the bullpen, but Storen was a car with the gas pedal stuck to the floor. Literally any other car is safer.
And then the bunt. Matt Williams sacrifice bunting one of his best hitters (with a 3-1 count) is just pure lunacy. It’s even crazier when you consider the bunt properly executed probably takes the bat out of Bryce Harper’s hands. Had Rendon succeeded in his sacrifice bunt attempt, the Mets intentionally walk Harper. And that’s after they’re given a free out.
At that point, however, the biggest damage had been done. The biggest weakness of the 2015 Nats officially became the first line of their obituary, which is now safe to be written. Last night gave us another terrible moment we’ll never forget. At a minimum, it’ll stick with us as long as it takes Matt Williams to make that long slow walk to the mound, ready to replace one reliever with another who just can’t quite get the job done.