The Guardians decided to return the favor to the Washington Nationals today by blowing a lead and allowing them to salvage the series finale.
Continuing a pattern from the first two games of this series, the Nationals had a 2-0 lead after two innings, only to watch the Guardians score four in the top of the third inning to take a lead. They added on two runs in the top of the seventh, but with Eli Morgan and James Karinchak unavailable today, the Nationals turned the tables on Tim Herrin and Nick Sandlin to ruin Cleveland’s dreams of three straight comeback wins in the nation’s capital.
Shane Bieber got the start for the Guardians and continued to figure out how to be an effective pitcher with a fastball that is sitting at 90-91. Part of the answer for him in the early part of 2023 has been the highest slider and cutter usage rate of his career, throwing the former 30.2% and the latter 32.4% of the time. The Nationals clearly came in hunting pitches other than the fastball, getting their first four hits off the slider and their fifth and sixth hits off the cutter. That was all the scoring they could manage off Bieber, as he made an adjustment to go heavy on his fastball and knuckle-curve, even mixing in a rare changeup to get Keibert Ruiz to ground into a double-play to end the fifth.
It’s obviously very early in the season, but there are some reasons for mild concern about Bieber’s strikeout rate being the lowest of his career, as it was 6.63% entering a game where he only struck out four in six innings of work. The encouraging note is that Bieber continues to show the ability to adjust in-game and between starts to continue to keep hitters off balance without the strikeout stuff we’ve seen him throw in the past. I think he’s going to need to lean a little more on a well-located fastball than he has so far to get some more swings and misses on the off-speed.
Bieber was also helped by some excellent framing work from Mike Zunino. Zunino’s blocking issues have been well-documented, but watching the replay of this game and comparing how borderline pitches were called for Bieber vs. how they were called for Corbin would reveal the difference an excellent framer makes as Bieber seemed to get every close call. Bieber mentioned appreciating the connection he has with his new catcher in his postgame interview.
Zunino also backed his pitcher with a single and a double and a run scored. Over his past 300 plate appearances, Zunino has a 126 wRC+ against left-handed pitching and he looked very comfortable against Patrick Corbin today. An unfortunate block of home plate on a potentially inning-ending double play in the eighth allowed the Nationals to tie the game. Zunino was in a great position and then when Myles Straw’s (good) throw bounced, he shifted back, blocking the plate by rule. Very hard to blame the catcher in that situation, but the rule is meant to protect players, so I guess we can’t complain too much. He has to adjust, and, admittedly, I’m not entirely sure the runner wasn’t safe, with or without the block.
The Guardians did some typical Guardians things, stealing bases, reaching on errors, and taking extra bases on throwing mistakes. Doubles by Zunino and Josh Bell — who, thankfully, came alive in Washington this series— played big roles in their four-run third. Unfortunately, Guardians’ bench players receiving rare starts (Gabriel Arias and Oscar Gonzalez) went 0-8 with three strikeouts. Gonzalez scalded a 93 mph hit down the first base line which was snared by Dominic Smith, continuing a run of poor luck and performance for the young outfielder. A Will Brennan walk, Straw double, and Steven Kwan single set the Guardians up for another two runs in the seventh.
Sadly, an Arias double-play ball removed the threat of a bigger rally.
For the Nationals, Jeimar Candelario was seeing the ball extremely well, leading me to wonder how he had faired against Bieber in Detroit. Coming into today, he had two singles in 24 plate appearances against Bieber for .107 wOBA and a 45.7% strikeout rate — which just goes to show that batter-pitcher matchup data is entirely useless as a surface-level predictor. Candelario smoked a home run, and Luis Garcia hit a two-run home run off of Herrin to pull the Nationals within one run in the seventh.
This was the 13th game for the Guardians this season decided by one run. The lack of home runs, again, for Cleveland should remind Guardians fans to expect a lot of close games unless the Guardians’ hitters can discover some additional home-run hitting power as the season progresses. The margin for error is slim when you show a lack of ability to put the ball in the seats. Hopefully, the Guardians will start to swing for a little more power as the weather warms up.
Sandlin got the loss, giving up a hit to Stone Garrett and a walk to C.J. Abrams before a sacrifice bunt and the aforementioned sacrifice fly tied the game. Trevor Stephan gave up a walk and a hit on a high fastball to surrender the lead. You don’t want to see your pitcher walking C.J. Abrams, ever, and you also don’t want to see your lefty reliever giving up a bomb to Luis Garcia, who absolutely owned the Guardians this weekend, with five hits and two homers. Terry Francona mentioned after the game that Herrin missed his location on the Garcia home run by about three feet.
The bad news is that the Guardians lost their first game in 40 starts in which they gave Bieber four runs or more of support. The good news is that they still won the series, Brennan got a hit off a lefty, Sam Hentges is reportedly on the road to recovery to help the bullpen, and tomorrow is another day — a day in which the Guardians will play the Tigers.