As far as collapses go it was a masterpiece that could hang alongside any work of art in the Louvre.
The Nationals painted it by blowing a nine-run lead to the Atlanta Braves on Friday night, tying the game again with a dramatic home run in the bottom of the ninth before ultimately falling 11-10 in 11 innings. It was a shocking start to the biggest baseball series in Washington in years and the largest blown lead by the team since it moved to the District in 2005.
Ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg entered the sixth inning with the Nats ahead 9-0 and an easy win in sight. It didn’t turn out that way. The Braves scored four times in the sixth inning off Strasburg and four more times against a suddenly wild bullpen in the eighth inning before Michael Bourn’s two-run triple in the ninth put Atlanta ahead for the first time 10-9. The Braves (51-41) cut into the National League East lead with the Nats (53-38) now in first place by just 2 ½ games.
“It hurts. It hurts bad,” said closer Tyler Clippard, who struggled in the ninth inning to cap a rough week for himself. “We’ve got to win that game. Bottom line. And we usually do. Ninety-nine times out of 100 we win that game. It was a frustrating loss, a big game. But nothing you can do about it. We’ve got to move on.”
Danny Espinosa homered with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning to tie the game again. But Washington couldn’t take advantage of reliever Tom Gorzelanny’s perfect 10th inning. In the 11th, Paul Janish’s bloop hit over Ian Desmond’s head at shortstop scored Dan Uggla with the eventual winning run.
Pitching in a steady rain, Strasburg quickly gave up a single and then a two-run home run to Brian McCann in the sixth. The next three batters also ripped pitches into the outfield and two reached base. A two-run double by Martin Prado off reliever Mike Gonzalez and the Braves were in business at 9-4.
Walks by the bullpen hurt in the eighth. Drew Storen – pitching for the second day in a row in his second game of the season – issued one and allowed a hit. After Sean Burnett came on to record a pair of strikeouts, he then walked the next two batters himself. That pushed home the fifth run. Chipper Jones followed with a two-run single to make it 9-7. A Freddie Freeman RBI hit trimmed the lead to 9-8.
Still, the Nats had the lead and their closer, Clippard, on the mound. But things took a turn for the absurd in the ninth. Clippard walked Uggla and then hit Janish with a pitch. After a strikeout, Bourn ripped a ball off the scoreboard in right field for a two-run triple to complete the collapse. Shockingly, Atlanta led 10-9 and there was plenty of room for blame to go around.
“It was arguably the worst game I’ve ever managed in my life,” Washington manager Davey Johnson said. “I’ve never lost a nine-run lead when it was my part of the game to handle the pitching. It’ll be hard for me to sleep. I had a worse night than the guys did.”
But Strasburg, according to Johnson, also failed to go after the Braves’ hitters with his best pitches. That talented lineup pushed his pitch count high early and was disciplined enough to not chase pitches out of the strike zone. Strasburg walked three batters, but escaped unharmed until Atlanta began tattooing him in the sixth.
“[Strasburg] felt like he was missing, but I felt like he just wasn’t going after them,” Johnson said. “He wasted a lot of pitches. He really doesn’t know who he is at times. He doesn’t trust his stuff.”
Still, the now 24-year-old gave up just four runs in 5 1/3 innings on his birthday and his team led 9-2 at the time of his departure – Gonzalez allowed those two inherited runners to score – and that should have been enough.
But it wasn’t and now the two teams face a grueling doubleheader on Saturday at Nationals Park with both bullpens ravaged after using a combined 13 pitchers. Edwin Jackson and John Lannan, a familiar face recalled from Triple-A Syracuse for the first time in 2012, are the starters for Washington.
“It’s one game. Obviously, it’s an emotional game for people watching and it gets us a little bit,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, whose three-run homer in the fourth inning electrified the crowd and put his team up 6-0. “In the grand scheme of things it’s one game and we show up [Saturday] just like we do after every other game.”
Washington catcher Jesus Flores left the game in the seventh inning with a sore back, but says he’s fine to play in one of Saturday’s two games.
Nats manager Davey Johnson said relievers Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen are available for Saturday’s doubleheader. He will also use Drew Storen, just off a rehab assignment, for the third day in a row, if needed.
Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Steve Lombardozzi all had three hits. Morse’s three-run home run traveled an estimated 469 feet – the longest at Nationals Park this season.
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