Up 5-0 in the bottom of the ninth, the Nationals needed only three outs to take the first two from San Diego and move into a tie with the Marlins in the Wild Card Race, 2.5 games behind Houston. The Nats couldn't ask for a better situation because their bullpen has been the stalwart of the team pretty much all season.
Barry Svrluga in today's Post criticizes Frank Robinson for using "fancy pitching changes" in the bottom of the ninth, the implication being that that's why the Nats gave up the tying runs in the inning. We've been very critical of Robinson lately, and we've even suggested that the proper course of action is not to invite him back next season, but Svrluga's criticism of Robinson seems more than a little overdone.
The inning started well enough. Jason Bergmann walked Eric Young, but struck out Ramon Hernandez. Frank Robinson then brought in Joey Eischen. Bergmann is a young guy who may prove one day to be a good major-league pitcher, but he's not there yet. As we saw last week when he couldn't find the plate against the Braves, sticking with him can be a risky proposition, so replacing him seems like a good decision. Eischen has been a situational lefty all season, and we don't see much reason for changing that in the bottom of the ninth against the Padres. Bringing him in to face a left-handed hitter was eminently reasonable.
Eischen got Giles to fly out. Now there were two outs and a runner on first. Piece of cake, right? Wrong. Xavier Nady singled, and Robinson brought in Travis Hughes to replace Eischen.
We can't criticize Robinson for taking Eischen out at this point, because he had done what situational lefties are supposed to do--he had faced down the lefty. Unfortunately, Joe Randa singled off of Hughes to score Eric Young and put runners on first and second with two outs.
With the score 5-1 and with the tying run on deck with two outs, what should Robinson have done? We would have done exactly what he did do: bring in Chad Cordero. What did Cordero do? He walked Mark Loretta and then gave up a game-tying grand slam home run to Khalil Greene.
Bringing in Cordero was, in retrospect, disastrous, but does that make it a bad decision? No. If you can't count on your closer in late September you don't deserve to be in the playoffs. We now know that we can't count on Cordero right now. As Svrluga notes, Cordero has been awful in September, chalking up more home runs than strike outs. His ERA in September is 12.00, which isn't the kind of performance you'd like to see from your lights-out closer down the stretch. Cordero has now blown three saves in September, and his last two are the type that get a closer fired. Giving up a game tying home run to Chipper Jones and then a game winning home run to Andruw Jones was bad enough, but this latest home run ball to Greene seems to confirm that Cordero is a shell of his former self.
Who knows whether that's because of all the innings he's thrown this season, but it really doesn't matter at this point. We needed Cordero to close out this game against the Padres and last weekend's game against the Braves. Had he done that the Nationals would be 79-70, one game behind Philadelphia and 1.5 games behind Houston. Instead, the Nats are 3.5 games behind Houston and in, to put it mildly, a very precarious situation.
Lost in all of this is another stellar performance from Hector Carrasco. He shut out the Padres over six innings, giving up only three hits, striking out three, and walking none. It was a brilliant performance when the Nationals needed it most, and it seemed to poise the Nationals to continue their assault on the wild card. Until the disastrous ninth inning, that is.