Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Tyler Clippard has suffered two losses in 18 hours.
It doesn't make for pretty baseball, and today's 7-2 loss to the Mets was the latest example. The Nationals put forth another feeble offensive effort, amassing two runs and six hits against Raul Valdes and six New York relievers, watching as overworked reliever Tyler Clippard served up the game-changing homer in the seventh and watched as yet another middle-of-the order hitter succumbed to injury.
Ryan Zimmerman (ribs), Adam Dunn (hamstring) and Josh Willingham (knee surgery) were already out due to various ailments. That left Jim Riggleman fielding a lineup that featured a 5-6-7 of Wilson Ramos, Alberto Gonzalez and Justin Maxwell. Combined stat line for those three guys: a .218 average, four homers and 18 RBI.
And then Michael Morse -- one of the few guys actually producing at the plate, having homered each of the last two days -- aggravated a nagging hamstring injury and couldn't finish the game. Though he hopes to return to play tomorrow, Riggleman said Morse probably won't.
So an offense that has scored a total of six runs over its last five games will probably be down another man for the season finale. Should be fun.
"You'd like to say [the injuries aren't having an effect], but it's pretty much inevitable," Ian Desmond said. "You lose some horses like that, it's not easy. ... Whenever you've got threats behind you, you want to get the next guy up. I think we're trying to do a little bit too much by ourselves."
The manager refuses to use mounting injuries as an excuse for his team's play in the last week.
"You know, every club's got that," Riggleman said. "The Mets have played without All-Stars. The Phillies played without All-Stars all year. That's not an excuse. There's no excuse. We're just not getting it done."
That may be true, but here's the difference between most teams and the Nationals: They have the depth to overcome injuries, the Nats don't.
Has there been a more woeful bench in the majors this season? Willie Harris is hitting .181. Adam Kennedy is having the worst year of his career. Kevin Mench is 3-for-26. Wil Nieves has a .550 OPS. Alberto Gonzalez is threatening to become only the third player in modern history with at least 175 at-bats and fewer than five RBI.
And Justin Maxwell, bless his heart, just can't hit big-league pitching. I mean literally can't hit big-league pitching. After swinging and missing a 3-2 fastball at the eyes with the bases loaded in the seventh inning today, he has now struck out in 42 of his 103 at-bats. That's a worse rate than even Dunn (who sits on 198 strikeouts) posts at the plate.
The Nationals simply can't afford to have to use those bench players on a regular basis. Which means they simply can't afford to see guys like Zimmerman, Dunn, Willingham and Morse succumb to injuries.
The pressure then gets put on the rest of the squad to overcome it, and that's the last thing most of these guys need at this late stage of the season. Everyone is worn down, physically and emotionally, after a long season. And it's showing on the field.
We probably saw it today from Clippard, who had been brilliant for much of the last month but last night served up Josh Thole's game-winning homer in the 10th and today served up a towering, three-run homer to David Wright that put the Mets ahead for good.
Clippard can certainly be excused for having a couple of poor outings in an otherwise splendid season, but clearly he's worn down after making 78 appearances totaling 91 innings.
Remarkably, Clippard now has an 11-8 record as a reliever. He's going to finish at least tied for the team lead in wins (depending on what Livan Hernandez does in tomorrow's finale) and he's got a chance to wind up tied for second on the team in losses (if he somehow suffered another one tomorrow, which seems unlikely). He's the first big-league reliever in five years to record 19 decisions, only the second in the last decade.
"His struggle is kind of like the offense's struggle," Riggleman said. "We've seen great things, and we've seen times where we're just doing nothing."
There's a reason there are so few Cinderella teams in baseball: The season is so long, everyone's weaknesses get exposed along the way. It's possible for a club to overachieve for a couple of months, maybe even three or four, but it's almost impossible to do it over the full 162-game stretch.
Since that mid-May day in Colorado when the Nationals were 20-15, plenty of weaknesses have been exposed, perhaps none more glaring than the lack of depth on this roster.
Mike Rizzo's primary offseason objectives may be acquiring a No. 1 starter and ensuring he has a cleanup-hitting first baseman. But the GM might also want to make it a priority to improve his club's depth.
Unless he believes the 2011 Nationals can avoid injuries, he's going to need all the quality backups he can get his hands on.