Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Luis Atilano labored from the start, setting the tone for the Nats' 7-6 loss.
So excuse the Nats for feeling like they let another one slip away tonight, this 7-6, 10-inning loss to the Braves that could have easily gone the other way.
"Losing's losing, but when you lose and you came back and fought and kind of scratched and clawed, it hurts a little bit," Josh Willingham said. "But we'll be fine tomorrow. You've got to have a quick turnaround."
Willingham provided the most inspiring moment of the evening for the 15,616 at Nationals Park, delivering a pinch-hit, two-run single in the eighth to tie the game and ultimately send it to extra innings. But his insertion into the game by Jim Riggleman also played a role in the manager's strategy two innings later when this one was decided.
Fast-forward to the bottom of the 10th, the Nationals now trailing by a run after Matt Capps allowed his first run in 10 appearances. When Cristian Guzman led off against Braves closer Billy Wagner with a base hit up the middle, the table was set for either a game-tying or a game-winning rally.
Riggleman just had to decide which way to play it: Go for the tie, or go for the win. He chose to go for the win, opening himself up to some mild second-guessing when that plan failed.
Rather than have Ian Desmond bunt Guzman over to second, putting a runner in scoring position with one out, Riggleman instead let his rookie shortstop swing away. Desmond sent a fly ball to right field for the first out. Backup catcher Wil Nieves, summoned to pinch-hit for the left-handed Roger Bernadina against the left-handed Wagner, struck out swinging. And Willingham lined out to left to end the game.
Asked about the factors that played into his decision to go for the win rather than the tie, Riggleman first cited the fact he had already used up four of his six relievers.
"We were pretty strapped at that point with our bullpen," the manager said. "Knowing that we've got all these games in a row [20 consecutive game days], I didn't really want to play a tie game. I wanted to win the game right there."
Riggleman also cited his desire to allow both the right-handed Desmond and Willingham to get a crack at Wagner. Had Desmond bunted, the Braves might have pitched around Willingham and taken their chances with Nyjer Morgan instead.
Desmond, who has three sacrifice bunts already this season, supported his manager's strategy.
"I don't think you really play for the tie when you're at home," he said. "Lefty-righty, I wasn't really expecting it. I wouldn't have been surprised if I got it, but I didn't think I would have to bunt."
Riggleman has certainly pushed plenty of correct buttons over the last 27 games, and he made an astute call in sending up Willingham to hit for Justin Maxwell in the eighth. So you won't find any hard-core Monday Morning Quarterbacking around town after this one. And you won't find anyone truly upset with Capps for finally looking human and taking his first loss of the year.
The Nationals' new closer had been downright dominant to this point, successful converting his first 11 save opportunities. And it's not like he really blew this one. After pitching a scoreless ninth, he returned for the 10th and allowed a leadoff single to Troy Glaus, a sac bunt and then a bloop single to Matt Diaz that brought the winning run home.
The guy expected to lose a game at some point, right?
"You don't expect it to happen," Capps said. "You don't want it to happen. But it's inevitable that it's gonna. And when it does, you've got to find a way to put it behind you and move on."
Capps doesn't seem like the type who will have trouble retaking the mound his next time out and flushing this one down the toilet. He's got the attitude you want in a closer who understands the nature of the job.
"Believe me, I've given up some runs before," he said. "It's not the first time I've given up runs or taken a loss. If I'm lucky enough to play another 10 years, it probably won't be the last time."
But for a team that has managed to do so many little things right through the season's first five weeks, creating an expectation of success that wasn't here before, these kind of losses can stick in your craw a bit.
We'll find out tomorrow whether -- as has been the case several times already this year -- they can put this one behind them and bounce back strong.