September 15, 2019

OPINION: Nats collapse against Mets a potential organization-changing loss

Let me very clear about this up front: Matt Williams instructing Anthony Rendon to bunt in the ninth inning Tuesday night was not the reason the Washington Nationals lost to the New York Mets at home for the second straight game. It might be why they didn’t win, but it’s not why they lost.

No, that distinction falls to Drew Storen and his maddening inability to throw strikes in what was the highest of high-leverage situations he’ll see all season long. Storen is so wrapped up in his anger and disappointment about being removed from the closer’s spot once again that it’s spilled over into his pitching. There’s no other way to analyze the situation.

How effective would you be if your bosses demoted you and sent a national press release out about it?

The reason behind his poor performance is mechanical: he has sped up his delivery, causing him to “fly open” where his arm lags behind the rest of his body. This causes trouble locating his fastball and overthrowing the slider, resulting in poor location. Until last night, it’s just made him wild in the strike zone and open to more contact.

Last night, he couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat.

But this column isn’t about Storen.

No, it’s about Matt Williams and what has become a nightly dissection of every single decision he makes through the course of a baseball game.

Up until he ordered Rendon to bunt last night, Williams hadn’t made any glaring mistakes. It was reasonable to ask Blake Treinen to start the seventh inning. Williams got Treinen out quickly enough and turned to Felipe Rivero, who was the next lefty up since he’d already burned Matt Thronton to bail out Jordan Zimmermann in the sixth.

Rivero, though, had nothing, walking both batters he faced,  including the left-handed Curtis Granderson — to force in a run.

In came Storen, the former closer and now eighth-inning-guy, to try to rescue the seventh inning. It didn’t work. As so many of Williams’ decisions have failed of late.

All of those decisions, though, are defendable. At some point, your pitchers have to throw a strike. There’s so much pressure on this bullpen that they are suffocating now. They are pitching to avoid contact, pitching scared. It’s not just Storen, though he’s the main and obvious culprit.

I usually don’t like attributing performance problems to body language, but it was obvious watching on TV last night and the close-up cut-ins of Storen’s face that he was pitching while simultaneously appearing confused, terrified and angry at the home plate umpire.

For both parties’ sakes, it’s probably time to move him out of high-leverage situations and eventually let him move on.

But after the homer against Jonathan Papelbon put his team down, Williams was once again put in a challenging situation and he failed to rise to it.

Jayson Werth singled to lead off the ninth inning, bringing the winning run to the plate. That second point is key. Instead of letting Rendon — one of his team’s hottest hitters — hit away (with his 2-3-4 hitters due), Williams ordered him to sacrifice; to give up one of the three remaining outs he had left. It’s a spectacularly poor decision.

Over 100 years of statistics in professional baseball tells us a player scores from first with no outs more often than a runner at second with one out. Yet managers continue to give up an out to lower their chances of scoring.

Rendon, who’s only been asked to sacrifice a handful of times in his baseball career, failed, with his bunt forcing Werth at second base. Even if he’d been successful, the Mets still would have walked Bryce Harper, due next. By taking the bat out of Rendon’s hands, you surrendered a chance of something good happening from his at bat — and Harper’s. It’s doubtful that if Rendon simply had struck out, the Mets would have walked Harper with a man on first to put the winning run on base.

Essentially, Williams took the bat out of both Rendon’s and Harper’s hands. His two best hitters.

Williams said post-game he wanted to avoid the double-play.

Williams — by his decision and words — managed last night in the hopes of avoiding something bad instead of allowing his player the opportunity to do something good. He’s been doing this on a constant basis the second half of the season.

National baseball media has taken Williams to task, making him a laughingstock of late for his nightly mismanagement of the bullpen and other short-sighted decisions. GM Mike Rizzo has spoken a couple of times now on Williams’ behalf, defending him. It’s become a distraction, the last thing you want your field manager to be.

Matt Williams wasn’t the reason the Nats lost last night. But his constant decision-making process to avoid the bad rather than create the good indicates that he’s lost confidence in his players and is trying to impact the game himself rather than allow his players’ talent and ability to do the job.

For that reason alone, it’s time for a change.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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  1. […] Storen. I said it in my column on Wednesday, it’s time to stop pitching him in high-leverage situations. He’s throwing like a man […]

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