Monday, July 18, 2016

Starling Marte’s home run trumps Daniel Murphy’s in Nationals’ 2-1 loss

July 17, 2016
Pittsburgh Pirates' Starling Marte, right, celebrates his home run with Jonathon Niese (18) during the 18th inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Sunday, July 17, 2016, in Washington.
Pittsburgh Pirates' Starling Marte celebrates his home run with Jonathon Niese (18) during the 18th inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Sunday, July 17, 2016, in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP Photo)

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By the time Pittsburgh Pirates left fielder Starling Marte came to bat with two outs in the 18th inning Sunday, Washington Nationals Manager Dusty Baker’s lineup card had so many scratches and new names on it he could hardly tell who belonged where.
Baker did know that pitcher Jon Niese was on deck, and he said so to pitching coach Mike Maddux before looking up to get catcher Wilson Ramos’s attention, to tell him to walk the left fielder to get to the pitcher. By the time he did, veteran reliever Oliver Perez had already thrown a pitch. Marte had already hit it out of the park, the decisive run in a 2-1 Nationals lossat Nationals Park — the longest regular season game in their D.C. history.
“That was my fault,” Baker said. “I didn’t put the fingers up soon enough to walk him, and before I could, he hit the first pitch out of the ballpark. I knew they were out of men. I knew they were out of players. I knew they were out of pitchers, just like we were. It hurts to make a mistake like that.”
Part of baseball’s cruel reality is that one mistake often comes to define those games that include many more. One mistake, usually the last one, erases a game’s worth of good and bad. This one obscured memories of a strong start by Max Scherzer, of 10⅓ scoreless innings from the bullpen, of a tremendous relay throw, a few miscues, and Daniel Murphy’s last-chance, pinch-hit home run in the ninth.
If it weren’t for Murphy, the whole thing would have ended hours and innings earlier. After a trip to the All-Star Game in San Diego, then two days spent resting and treating a sore hamstring, it took Murphy some time to jump back into that unrelenting rhythm that characterized his first half.
When he pinch-hit with his team trailing by a run and down to its last out, Murphy’s first two swings resulted in foul balls. One of them sent an uncharacteristically weak groundball to the right of first base and broke his bat in the process — a cutter, one he said later he was glad not to roll over to first.
His third swing of the second half sent a line drive home run into the second deck above the Nationals bullpen, a two-out, two-strike blast that tied the game. Momentarily coated in the rust of rest, Murphy promptly brushed it off — and in so doing sent the Nationals into an extra-inning drama.
“We’re all calling it,” Scherzer said. “We almost knew it was going to happen. As soon as he hit it, we were like ‘Yeah, we’re going to play 16 innings.’ We were wrong. We played 18.”
The Nationals’ eight pitchers threw 266 pitches in 18 innings, but one made the difference. Scherzer threw 103 of those and allowed one run in seven innings on six hits. If it weren’t for Murphy, he would have suffered his second 1-0 loss in his last three starts. He has allowed one earned run or fewer in seven of his past eight starts.
“I was in the middle of a pitchers’ duel,” said Scherzer, who joked he was already feeling his day-after soreness by the time he addressed reporters after the game. “When that happens, you know every little mistake gets amplified.”
The Nationals’ offense, facing rookie right-hander Chad Kuhl of the University of Delaware, then the Pirates’ bullpen, did not give itself much margin for error. Murphy’s home run was its fourth hit of the evening. They finished with eight in 18 innings and went 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position. Several times they hit into a well-executed Pirates shift.
At others, line drives found gloves, or high flyballs fell at the warning track. Occasionally, as when Danny Espinosa was thrown out at second because of a missed sign, or when Trea Turner was thrown out trying to turn a single into a double in the 17th, they ran themselves out of chances. Baker said Turner’s aggressiveness was a smart play. Turner called it a “dumb play.”
urner wouldn’t have had a chance to single that inning at all if it weren’t for a perfect relay executed in the top of the 16th. With two outs in that inning and a man on first, Josh Harrison drove a double off the center field wall. Eric Fryer charged home as Michael A. Taylor hit Danny Espinosa. Espinosa threw home — at 94 mph according to MLB’s StatCast — and got Fryer at the plate.
“Like I said about Murph being a special hitter, Danny’s got a special arm,” Turner said. “He’s shown it all year. That’s a huge play, once again gives us a chance to keep going. . . . I love watching plays like that because I think stuff like that goes unnoticed.”
Many more components of Sunday’s game will go unnoticed — like the fact that Anthony Rendon was unavailable with what Baker described as severe flu-like symptoms, which left the Nationals with a tired bullpen and non-existent bench by the 18th inning. Or the fact that the Pirates, facing Espinosa with Perez on deck and no available pinch hitters in the 18th, also pitched to the position player instead of the pitcher. One choice hurt, the other did not.

“Normally it’s a good idea in that case to maybe walk him or at least consider it, but they gave me the opportunity to pitch to him,” Perez said through team translator Octavio Martinez. “In that case, it’s my job to know the situation. With that, I tried to make a difficult pitch for the hitter . . . it was my mistake.”

Whoever takes the blame, whoever actually deserves it — if blame ever belongs to one person after six hours of baseball — those 18 innings added up to one game, not more. The Nationals won their 18th series in 30 tries and are 19 games over .500, comfortably atop the National League East. After a day off Monday, Baker will have a refreshed team to face the Dodgers behind rookie Reynaldo Lopez in his major league debut Tuesday night. He will have a fresh lineup card to go with it.

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