You never know which wound will strike a vital organ. You never know which loss will be the final unhinging of a season. For the Nats, who had gotten to one knee in the last week, regaining a bit of dignity, this was a blow that sent them sprawling again. This 4-3 loss came at the worst time, heading to three games in Atlanta against the Braves who have thumped them in 10 of 13 meetings and lead them in the NL East by 141
“The mood kind of stinks right now in here,” Haren said in the silent locker room after his seventh effective start (2.30 ERA) since coming off the DL. “But we can’t go to Atlanta feeling sorry for ourselves or we’re going to get rolled.”
In a brutal Nats season, this was another gruesome day. The pitch before Soriano’s gopher ball to the .213-hitting Sanchez was a strike, that should have ended the game, according to PITCHf/x, the most accurate measuring device MLB possesses. It nicked the zone, letter high, by perhaps an inch. But PITCHf/x doesn’t have a right arm to raise. It’s just a machine.
The umpire, in this case Jim Joyce, owns the strike zone and calls it his way. If he’s consistent, he’s a good ump. Even Johnson didn’t question his call. “He called the low strike all day [not the high strike],” Johnson said. “What [got us] was walking the left fielder [Roger Kieschnick, the previous hitter] . . . You gotta get him out or make him put the ball in play. Some guys, you have to say, ‘Here, hit it.’ ”
Walking rookie Kieschnick, who’s never had an extra-base hit in the big leagues, was the original sin. Sanchez’s home run — only his fourth in 297 big-league at bats — was just the appropriate punishment.
In baseball, as in childhood, growing up takes years. Maturity is easy to praise, hard to acquire and usually involves a cruel word: experience. They tell you to learn from the mistakes of others, rather than enduring all of that harsh experience yourself. But they never tell you exactly how to do it.
So, time after time, that experience arrives on days like this. The Nationals seem determined to have every single kind of elation and exasperation on the baseball spectrum on the winding trail to wherever they are ultimately headed as a baseball destiny.
They have gone from 103-loss awful to decent, then from decent to excellent in one huge gulp last year, then from excellent to a preseason World Series favorite with all the pressure of expectations. And now they enter a new and also educational stage. They are the bitterly disappointed team that has been written off, its postseason chances down to about 2 percent, that has suddenly gotten hot; but, at the same time, they can hardly afford a single misstep if they are to keep their slim wild-card chance alive.