Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Drew Storen's debut couldn't offset Craig Stammen's rough first or Adam Dunn's strikeout.
But tonight -- Storen's nice debut aside -- it's hard to overlook the two key plate appearances that more than anything else produced this 6-2 loss to the Cardinals.
Craig Stammen's two-out walk of Holliday in the bottom of the first opened the floodgates for the Cardinals, who proceeded to score four runs and jump out to an early lead. And Adam Dunn's strikeout on a 3-2 fastball at his eyelids in the top of the seventh killed the Nationals' last, best chance at rallying to win.
Change the outcome or either or both of those plate appearances, and we're talking about an inspiring Nats win right now instead of a fourth-straight loss.
Let's begin with the first-inning walk, because it set the tone for the entire evening. Stammen cruised through the game's first two batters, getting Felipe Lopez to ground out and then striking out Ryan Ludwick. Even with Holliday at the plate and Pujols -- or, as Jim Riggleman referred to him: "Babe Ruth" -- in the on-deck circle, Stammen didn't appear to be in any trouble.
But when his 3-2 fastball to Holliday came in a little low, Stammen knew he had just committed a cardinal sin.
"I was kicking myself for having a two-out walk," the right-hander said. "And once that happens, you've got to face Albert, and he's the best hitter in the league."
Pujols wasn't the one who got Stammen. His single up the middle only prolonged the inning. But that in itself became a problem, because Stammen couldn't finish it off. Colby Rasmus singled in a run. David Freese tripled in two more. Yadier Molina brought home one more with a single. Just like that, the Nationals trailed 4-0 and faced an uphill battle the rest of the night.
"When you put your team in a hole like that, it's kind of hard to battle back," Stammen said.
The Nationals did battle, though, and made a game of it. Stammen followed up his disastrous first inning with five scoreless frames. And the offense pushed across two runs in the fifth to make it 4-2.
That set up Dunn's golden opportunity in the seventh. After Mike Morse popped out with runners on second and third and one out -- a weak at-bat itself -- Riggleman initially sent Alberto Gonzalez to the plate to face left-hander Trever Miller.
Thus began the chess match between Riggleman and Tony La Russa, two of the most-astute in-game managers in baseball. La Russa called upon right-hander Jason Motte from the bullpen. Riggleman countered with Dunn, who was out of the lineup for the second straight day with flu-like symptoms but was available to pinch-hit. It looked like a brilliant managing job by Riggleman, who managed to get his best power hitter up against a right-handed reliever.
But Dunn couldn't deliver. After working the count full, and with Motte trying to pitch around him, the big slugger inexplicably swung and whiffed at a high fastball well out of the strike zone.
Dunn apparently didn't realize just how bad a pitch it was. When he returned to the clubhouse, he asked Mike Rizzo (who had been watching on TV) whether the pitch was high.
"Uh, yeah," Rizzo said. "Are you kidding?"
"Was it that bad?" Dunn asked.
"If I'm putting together a video of the worst swings in your career, that's the first one I'm showing," Rizzo responded.
The two could joke about it because Dunn has one of the keenest batting eyes in baseball. That whiff was so out of character, it was almost hard to believe Dunn was the culprit.
But that strikeout killed whatever chance the Nationals had at rallying to win this game. They went down quietly in the eighth, and when Matt Capps gave up two more runs in the bottom of the inning, their fate had been sealed.
That's the fine line between a nice win and a four-game losing streak. Now, the Nationals have to try to beat Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter to avoid heading home in a five-game funk, with their record back at .500.
"It doesn't get any easier," Ryan Zimmerman said. "But we've been playing good baseball. We've just been losing some close games. That's how it goes. You can't go win every one-run game all season. We're not panicking. We feel good about what we have going. We'll come out tomorrow and try to split here."
Had only two plate appearances featured different outcomes tonight, the Nats might actually be going for a sweep tomorrow instead of hoping to split.