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Brad Brach blows game in ninth as Orioles fall to Nationals

The Orioles were cruising towards victory, then a ninth inning meltdown happened. In the end, it was former Oriole Matt Wieters who plunged in the dagger.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles having the best record in MLB survived about 24 hours. Their reign ended in the nation’s capital at the hands of former Oriole Matt Wieters with an assist from substitute Orioles closer Brad Brach, who faced six batters and gave up three runs while getting just one out. Collectively, the Orioles whizzed away a winnable game as they fell, 7-6.

When you talk about a guy having nothing on a particular night, that was Brach in the ninth on Wednesday. He was simply unable to put away Jayson Werth to start the inning, with Brach ending up on the wrong end of one of those 11-pitch at-bats that turns into a home run.

The Werth home run cut a 6-4 Orioles lead to 6-5. The collapse was underway, if not complete. Brach dragged out the rest painfully, never seeming to be in control of the situation, giving up a double to Bryce Harper, losing command to Daniel Murphy and walking him, a load-the-bases single to Anthony Rendon, before Wieters brought two runs home to end it all.

It’s a reminder of how spoiled we all were last year by the perfection of Zach Britton. Even good relievers have bad nights, and Brach has now had bad nights in what are probably the two most painful Orioles losses of the season to date. They’re still 11 games over .500 and tied for the division lead, but you don’t want it to be May 10 and the guy who’s saving games for you has a 3.79 ERA.

Losing a winnable game

Let’s face it, the Orioles have won a lot of “those” games so far this year, games that you frankly can’t even believe they won. They are due to lose some every now and again. The knowledge that a team can’t win every game doesn’t make losing one like this feel much better.

It was such a winnable game, though. The Orioles had command of the contest for most of it. They started out with three second-inning runs against Stephen Strasburg, and generally taught the lesson that the AL East is tougher competition than the NL East by tagging Strasburg for five runs, all earned, in six innings.

That second inning rally included some more dopey play from Washington, including allowing Orioles starter Wade Miley to reach base on what turned into a bunt single but started out as the most obvious “pitcher tries to sacrifice bunt” of all time.

Later, Mark Trumbo blasted off against Strasburg, crushing a two-run shot for his fourth home run of the year. This gave the Orioles, at that time, a 5-1 lead. They eventually held a 6-2 lead when Manny Machado took one of the year’s several failed Nationals closers, Blake Treinen, deep in the seventh inning - Machado’s ninth homer of the year.

What happens when you can’t push the starter

There was consternation in Tuesday’s game, which the Orioles ended up winning, over trying to push an extra inning out of Ubaldo Jimenez. That decision did not work out, temporarily. Wednesday’s game was a lesson in when you can’t wring that extra inning out of your starting pitcher.

Miley had the pitch count blues. In 2017 Miley fashion, he walked four batters in five innings, and while he gave up “only” five hits and “only” two runs, it took him 119 pitches to get through just five innings, and he was lucky to get through the five. This has been the Miley life in 2017. Sometimes it’s worked out. Tonight, it did not.

When there’s a six-man bullpen, even if two of those men are pitchers who have been starters and can go long, your options really become limited if you have to start using the good relievers in the sixth inning of a contest - as the Orioles ended up doing.

Mychal Givens pitched the sixth inning plus a batter in the seventh. That was fine. Donnie Hart finished the seventh, also fine, then went one batter in the eighth. This was less fine. Lefty Daniel Murphy singled off of Hart and that was that for Hart.

You might expect to find Darren O’Day in this spot. Or at least, the past, better version of O’Day, though it’s unclear to what extent that O’Day remains. Maybe he wasn’t available, maybe Buck Showalter just chose to avoid him because O’Day’s 5.02 ERA isn’t lying about what kind of pitcher he is at this moment in time.

Whatever the case, Showalter summoned Alec Asher, who has really been a spot start/long relief hero for the Orioles up to this point in time. It looked like he might be again: Asher struck out Rendon and Wieters before extinguishing the good feelings by giving up a home run to Michael A. Taylor.

For that extra salt-in-the-wound touch, the home run was Taylor’s first of the year in over 60 plate appearances. That is not a guy you want to be beating you, to say the least. This two-run shot cut a 6-2 lead to 6-4 and put the game in Brad Brach territory, in whose hands the lead was ultimately not safe.

Could or should the Orioles have scored more than six runs? Maybe. They did have a few chances, and with a 3-8 with runners in scoring position, they might have scored more if more Orioles got in on the timely hitting. They only left five men on base in total, though, and when you get down to it, when you score six runs, you should win that game. If you don’t, it’s not the offense’s fault.

The Orioles have won some close games with clutch hitting and pitching performances. You don’t get to have an 8-2 record in one-run games by accident. But losses like this leave that gnawing doubt, at least until something happier comes along to wash it away, that maybe this Britton-less bullpen thing isn’t tenable after all.

They should have won this one and they didn’t, and now all we can do is hope that over the course of the long season, we’re not looking back on this game sighing the sigh of Robert Frost’s road not taken.

The series concludes on Thursday night at the standard civilized baseball time of 7:05pm Eastern. Dylan Bundy and A.J. Cole are the scheduled starters in the game.