SAN FRANCISCO — The sour realities that come with being the best team in the major leagues aren’t all that plentiful. The Washington Nationals entered Tuesday night’s game against the San Francisco Giants having lost just twice in their previous 13 games and the night before they’d set a record for hits inside the pitcher’s haven that is AT&T Park.
The times they’ve had to come to grips with a defeat since the All-Star break barely inches into the double-digits.
But the reality that hit them on Tuesday night in a 6-1 loss to the Giants was the same one so many opponents reach when they face the Nationals: a great pitching performance can bring everything — all that momentum, all those good feelings — to a screeching halt.
For one night, anyway, their kryptonite was Madison Bumgarner.
“He was just on,” said left fielder Tyler Moore, one of five starters held hitless. “That’s just the way this game works sometimes. It’s crazy. We score 14 or whatever last night, and tonight they shut us down.”
Bumgarner, and an eighth-inning meltdown by the Nationals’ bullpen that brought all nine Giants‘ hitters to the plate and turned a 2-1 game into a 6-1 uphill battle in a matter of minutes and shrunk the Nationals’ lead in the division down to 4½. Drew Storen retired only one of the five batters he faced, struggling with command issues, and Sean Burnett only two of the four he was summoned for.
After banging the ball all over — and once out of — AT&T Park on Monday night, the Nationals got more of a taste of the way this unique ballpark usually treats hitters. Balls hit to right field stopped in the wind as if being smacked into a brick wall. The same held true in center field.
But a one-run lead for the best offensive team since the All-Star break could seem like child’s play, especially if the Giants turned to their oft-unreliable closer Santiago Casilla with the Nationals’ bench stocked with left-handers. A five-run deficit, however, is another story.
“I really felt we were going to win that ballgame if we just hold them in the eighth,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who reluctantly turned to Sean Burnett after he finally decided Storen “had trouble locating everything.”
“I liked the way we were set up for their bullpen,” Johnson said. “I thought we’d have a better chance but they swung the bats good. They probably had a little vengeance on us after all that whooping up on them last night.”
“I just fell behind in the count,” Storen said. “Tried to make the adjustments and ground balls found holes. You just can’t fall behind these guys. I’ve just got to make the adjustments. Missing down in the zone is not really normal for me so I’ve just got to adjust my sights and go on from there. … It’s part of the healing process and getting polished. You learn from every outing and I’ll be ready tomorrow.”
Bumgarner, who tossed the second complete game of his career with 108 pitches, was hardly even asked to sweat. Only twice did he work with two runners on and it wasn’t until the seventh that the Nationals made him pay for allowing their first two to reach base. Jayson Werth tripled on a ball to deep right center field that Hunter Pence made an adventure out of and Adam LaRoche drove him in with a bullet to shortstop that Brandon Crawford couldn’t handle.
Toss in two hits by Danny Espinosa, both times getting stranded on the basepaths, and a single by right-hander Jordan Zimmermann and that was the Nationals’ offensive output for the night.
It didn’t matter that Zimmermann, operating admittedly without his best stuff and catching far more of the plate with his pitches than he usually does, still got them through 5⅔ and allowed just two runs. A walk and two singles ended his night in the sixth with a runner on third — only the second time in 24 starts he’s failed to get through at least six innings — and Zimmermann smacked the ball into his glove as he saw Johnson emerge from the dugout.
“I wish I would have put up a zero there in the sixth but unfortunately they got another run,” Zimmermann said. “That would’ve been a whole different ballgame 1-1 going into the seventh but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Zimmermann lamented most, perhaps, the pitch he left for Brandon Belt in the sixth with two runners on. Belt smacked the 92-mph fastball to right field, scoring what would prove to be a pivotal second run but getting thrown out by Jayson Werth after trying to stretch it into a double. Zimmermann appeared to seethe on the mound.
“I was trying to go in and jam him,” he said. “And I just left it right over the middle. Anyone could hit that pitch.
“I always want to finish an inning, (but) I was more frustrated with the pitch there… I wish I could’ve thrown it in a little bit farther.”
Instead the Nationals turned their sights toward Wednesday, toward a rubber-match victory so that they can end their longest road trip of the second half having won every series. Late Tuesday night, Baseball Prospectus listed them as having a 99.3 percent chance of making the playoffs. Their one loss certainly didn’t dim those prospects much.
“You’re not going to win every game,” Werth said. “So you can’t expect to do that but you come out every night and put it on the line and we do that every night. We’ve got a chance to win the series tomorrow and finish up a quality road trip and get back home for the stretch run. One more game to win.”