Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Scott Olsen was done in by a three-batter stretch in the fourth inning tonight.
But there were three negative developments to come out of this game, each of them contributing factors to one of the less-inspiring ballgames of the Nats' season to date.
How did the Nationals' lose this one? Let us count the ways...
1. SCOTT OLSEN COULDN'T GET LEFTIES OUT
The biggest blast of the night (Mark Reynolds' three-run homer in the fourth) came from one of only four right-handed batters in Arizona's starting lineup. But as Olsen pointed out, the big blast was only made possible by his inability to retire the two lefties in front of Reynolds.
Adam LaRoche ignited the Diamondbacks' two-out rally with a single past a diving Alberto Gonzalez at second base. Miguel Montero then drew a walk that ticked off both Olsen and Jim Riggleman.
"The walk to Montero really got him," Riggleman said. "If we get Montero there, we're not facing Reynolds with two men on."
Thus, Reynolds' drive into the swimming pool beyond the right-center field fence turned a 1-1 game into a 4-1 deficit.
"I give up a lot of home runs. But you can live on giving up solo home runs," Olsen said. "Solo home runs generally don't beat you. A three-run homer beats you pretty much every time. And it did again tonight."
(Olsen wasn't kidding. Of the 104 home runs he's allowed in his career, only nine came with two or more men on base.)
The fourth inning proved Olsen's undoing tonight, but he classified his entire outing as "awful." The main reason: He couldn't get the Diamondbacks' lefties out. The four regulars aside from starting pitcher Joe Saunders (LaRoche, Montero, Kelly Johnson and Stephen Drew) went a combined 5-for-10 with a walk. Johnson also roped a shot to deep right that was caught by Michael Morse at the wall.
Olsen generally has been effective against left-handed hitters (they're batting .250 this season against him) but he couldn't figure out a way to retire them tonight.
"They put four lefties, five lefties, whatever the hell it was, in the lineup today," he said. "I've got to do better than that. It was awful."
2. THEY COULDN'T STRING ANYTHING TOGETHER AGAINST JOE SAUNDERS
There are dominant, complete-game performances. And then there are Joe Saunders complete-game performances. Not to take anything away from the lefty and Springfield, Va., native who has been fantastic since the Diamondbacks acquired him in the Dan Haren trade. But he gave the Nationals plenty of chances to take him down tonight, and they didn't take advantage of it.
Nine batters reached base, six of them in the game's first four innings. The only one to score, though, was Ryan Zimmerman, who drove himself in with a towering homer off the batter's eye above the center-field fence in the top of the first.
Otherwise, when the Nats put somebody on base against Saunders, they left him there. By night's end, they were 0-for-12 with a runner on base.
"We let him off the hook early," Zimmerman said.
Double-play grounders by Ivan Rodriguez, Ian Desmond and Morse didn't help. Neither did the fact hardly anyone in the lineup had ever faced Saunders before. Only Rodriguez, Morse and Adam Kennedy (who had a combined 12 at-bats against the former Angel from their American League days) had seen him. The rest of the lineup was flying blind.
"The first time you see someone, you don't really know what to expect," Zimmerman said. "He did a really good chance of keeping us off-balance. We had our chances early and didn't capitalize."
At the start of this series, Riggleman talked about the need for his club to take it to the Arizona pitching staff in this hitter-friendly ballpark. Well, two games in, the Nationals have scored four runs.
"The numbers don't lie at this point in the season," the manager said. "Here we are in August, and Arizona hits a lot of home runs, especially in this ballpark. So when you come in here, you're going to have to score some runs."
3. COLLIN BALESTER COULDN'T FIND THE PLATE
Balester has always possessed a million-dollar fastball and very little ability to locate it. The Nationals converted him to a reliever earlier this season in a last-ditch attempt to revive his career, and he was successful enough to earn a promotion to the majors nine days ago.
In that time, he's now plunked two different batters in the head. He got Rickie Weeks in Milwaukee. Tonight, he got Reynolds in the noggin and left the former Virginia Cavalier with a huge lump on his forehead that would have looked appropriate in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
We can make some light of it because Reynolds is going to be fine, but in the bigger picture, this is a real cause for concern. Balester has a bad penchant for throwing up and in to right-handed hitters because of some poor mechanics that cause him to drop his elbow sometimes and lose control.
"Obviously, it's one of those things I need to work on," he said.
But how much longer can the Nats let Balester work this out at the big-league level? The leash is dangerously short at this point.
It doesn't help that Balester's psyche is already a bit delicate. He was shaken up enough by tonight's incident to make an attempt to see Reynolds after the game and apologize. Riggleman left him in the game after the plunking because he didn't want his pitcher's night to end on such a negative note, and Balester did respond by striking out Drew.
But at this rate, you've got to wonder what kind of situation the Nats will need to be in for Riggleman to hand Balester the ball again.
"I hope it's just a fluke coincidence," Riggleman said. "Something about when the ball comes out of his hand now and then, it runs up and in on somebody. You can't have that."