Thursday, November 15, 2007

Help! I'm Choking!

Earlier, we looked at the biggest clutch hits of the year -- those that most affected the Nats' chances of winning a game. So what about the flip side? What were the worst? Hopefully you've repressed most of these.

Again, we're using WPA, which measures the percentage change in a team's chances based upon how MLB teams have historically done in that same situation.

10, tie: Robert Fick's lazy bunt, -18.6%, 4/20
Dmitri Young's killer K, -18.6%, 6/18

I still get angry when I think about Fick's play. After Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero yacked away a 3-run lead to the Marlins, the Nats found themselves deep in extra innings and with Ryan Zimmerman on first, leading off the 13th. Robert Fick came to the plate, having come in for defense earlier in the game, in an obvious bunt situation. He bunted it right back to the pitcher, but decided he didn't have to run to first. The Marlins nailed Zimmerman at second, then threw to first to complete the rally-killing double play. Nevertheless, the Nats would go on to win, thanks to Chris Snelling's RBI single an inning later.

When the defending AL Champion Tigers blew into town, they steamrolled the Nats. But it might not have been were it not for Dmitri's K. In the first game, the Tigers brought in closer Todd Jones even with a 9-5 lead. Jones didn't have it: double, single, triple, single, single and three runs were in and the winning run was on base, all with nobody out. And Dmitri Young -- who had been scorching the ball -- struck out after fouling 4 straight pitches off. Had he been able to move the runners over somehow, Austin Kearns' grounder might've tied the score. But the runners stayed where they were, and that one out changed the entire complexion of the inning.

9: Jesus Flores' weak groundout, 5/20, -19.2%

Faced with the prospect of being swept at RFK by the lowly O's, the Nats trailed 3-1 heading into the 8th inning. A Ryan Langerhans run drove one run in and and HBP and 1B by Kearns and Belliard brought the Nats to within a run with just one out. Jesus Flores had a chance to come through with the bases loaded, with his first signature hit. Even a long fly ball would've tied the score. Danys Baez threw a ball, blocked in the dirt, but Flores hit the next one right to the third baseman. Mora threw home, nailed the tying run for the second out and the Nats looked cooked. It'd take a hit to tie the game -- a hit that Nook Logan would provide, putting the Nats ahead 4-3 and salvaging the series.

8: Ryan Church's bases-loaded grounder, 4/29, -19.9%
Jason Bergmann had the good stuff on the mound, but John Maine was just as effective for the Mets. Carlos Beltran's sixth-inning solo homer was the only run on the board when the Nats started rallying furiously in the 8th. Aaron Heilman struggled, allowing two singles and a walk, loading the bases with 2 outs. With Ryan Church coming to the plate, the Mets turned to lefty Scott Schoeneweis for the key play of the game. Church took a ball, but turned on the next pitch, hitting it right to the first baseman, ending the inning. A hit likely would've won the game for the Nats, and a walk would've given them a fighting chance. He did neither, and Billy Wagner put that non-curly L firmly into the books an inning later.

6, tie: Ryan Zimmerman's almost-game-winner, 5/18, -20.6%
Ronnie Belliard's game-ending grounder, 6/18, -20.6%

I still vividly remember Zimmerman's shot, one of those cases where even the best swing doesn't produce an optimal outcome. The Nats were facing Orioles closer Chris Ray while down by a run in the 9th. Nook Logan led off with a walk, and stole second. Belliard couldn't move him over, but he did go to third with two outs on a Felipe Lopez grounder. Cristian Guzman walked, putting runners on the corners and bringing up Cap'n Clutch, Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman worked a 7-pitch AB, fouling off a few pitches, and taking some tough balls. On a 3-2 pitch, with the winning run moving off first, he ripped a ball HARD to left field, a sure game-winning double. But Freddie Bynum had him played perfectly, making a great catch, and robbing Zimmerman of plenty of glory.

If the date of that Belliard game seems familiar, it's because it's from the same game as Dmitri's play above. The same inning, even. With two outs, Belliard pinch hit for Jon Rauch with runners on first and third and the Nats trailing by just one run. A hit ties the game and gives the Nats a good chance of winning in extras (roughly a 55% chance). But his groundout ended the game.

That game is a fascinating one. Down by 4 to start the inning, the Nats had just a 2% chance of winning the game. After Zimmerman singled to put the winning run on with nobody out, the Nats were actually favored to win the game, about a 52% chance. Dmitri's K took about 18% away. Austin Kearns' fielder's choice knocked another 13%, and Belliard finished off the job, squandering a chance to win a game that the Nats had no business winning.

5: Ryan Zimmerman's lineout, 9/4, -24.4%
Dontrelle Willis clung to a 3-2 lead heading into the bottom of the 8th. Nook Logan doubled to right, and Felipe Lopez hit a dying infield single to third that Logan didn't run to third on. With Zimmerman at the plate, the Marlins turned to Lee Gardner. Zimmerman ripped it hard, right at the second baseman, and Lopez was caught off first, ending the inning and keeping the tying run off the board. But that wasn't the only big play in the game...

4: Ronnie Belliard's "bunt", 9/4, -26%
From that very same game, the Nats kept the pressure up in the 9th, getting runners on first and second with one out. For some reason, Belliard tried getting a bunt down, perhaps to catch a napping (and all-world terrible) defense. But he seemed to catch himself by surprise, popping it high into the air off the first baseline for an easy out, and a team-killing play. (Luckily, he'd be bailed out by Jesus Flores, who ripped a liner deep to left, scoring both runs and winning the game, the single most valuable play of the Nationals' season; hell of a roller coaster that game was, huh?)

3: Ryan Zimmerman runs the bases with his head up his ass, 7/20, -27%

The Nats trailed the Rockies 3-0 entering the 8th inning, and had to have been licking their chops when Jorge Julio waddled out of the pen. Three straight singles put the tying run on base. Dmitri Young's grounder moved the tying run to second with just one out, but because it was right to the first baseman, the runner on third couldn't come in. If I'm remembering right, the Rockies pitching coach visited Julio on the mound, creating a mini delay. Austin Kearns batted, and hit a lazy pop to second base for the second out. Only catch is that Zimmerman was streaking around the bases, sure there were two outs. The Rockies turned the easy inning-ending double play, and the Nats never threatened again.

2: Robert Fick blows another extra-innings game, 8/29, -32.5%
The Nats started the 12th inning with the Dodgers tied at 9 having already used six different pitchers. They needed to wrap up a win quickly, or there was no way they'd be able to win. A walk and a single put runners on the corners for Robert Fick with just one out. A fly ball likely wins the game. All they needed was a productive out. Instead, Fick gave them an unproductive two outs, hitting a 'round-the-horn double play on a 2-0 pitch. A half-inning later, Fick's doppelgänger Shea Hillenbrand came through in a similar situation with the game-winning SF.

1: The Nook Logan Play, 6/23, -54.3%
You knew it was coming, didn't you? After Cordero blew a 3-1 lead with a 3-run homer in the top of the 9th, the Nats faced Indians closer Joe Borowski. The Nats loaded the bases, with one out -- that coming on a Brandon Watson pop bunt. Then the unthinkable happened. Felipe Lopez grounded out to the pitcher, who threw home to get the force on the tying run. But that wasn't all. Nook Logan, for whatever godforsaken reason, tore around third as if he wanted to score. The only catch was that the catcher clearly held the ball, waiting a beat or two before the third baseman could get into position. A quick throw, an easy tag, and Logan was -- there's no better way of describing it -- picked off third, ending the game, a completely indescribable, baffling play that caused numerous colorful expletives to echo through the night all 'round the region.

Now you owe it to yourself to beg, borrow, and steal to find a copy of Charlie Slowes call of that play. It might be the single best thing I've ever heard in any genre, right up there with the best performance of Beethoven's 9th. This isn't quite the same, but a helpful reader transcribed it here. When you read it, imagine Chuck's 5-alarm voice blaring on high, tinged with a mixture of shock, general disgust, and amazement. He didn't even see baseball that dumb in Tampa.


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