ANAHEIM, Calif. — Tuesday night, the hallmarks of their winningest stretch in six years vanished for one game, and the Washington Nationals played the kind of baseball they had seemingly abandoned in their wretched past. Their starting pitcher turned his catcher into a hockey goalie, their defense committed a fistful of errors and their bullpen disintegrated. When you play so many good games, maybe the bad ones stick out more.
If Davey Johnson had watched the Nationals’ unsightly, 11-5 loss at Angels Stadium from home in Winter Park, Fla., he would have probably shut the television off in the eighth inning, after the Los Angeles Angels smashed their third home run of the night, or maybe after the Nationals committed their fifth error. Instead, he watched from the visitors’ dugout, still searching for his first major league win in 11 years after his second game as Nationals manager.
The Nationals lost consecutive games for the first time since June 9, dropping back to .500 and ensuring their first series loss after winning five straight. Their scorching June had served to draw an especially distinct line between this year and previous seasons, but the Nationals blurred it Tuesday night.
“We haven’t done anything like that all year,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. “It’s just something you put behind you and move on. We’ll come back tomorrow and play better.”
The Nationals had made at least five errors only three times in their team history, and not since September 2007. The condition of the Angels Stadium infield contributed. On June 18, U2 played a concert here. In the week since, the grounds crew tore up the old field, laid fresh sod and rolled it. The result was a fast, unpredictable infield. The ball skipped and skidded along the grass, kicking up dirt as it went.
Of the Nationals’ five errors, shortstop Ian Desmond, who has spent this season rescuing his defensive reputation, booted two grounballs and Espinosa missed another. The Angels also made two errors, both by infielders on grounders.
“I know they have a pretty good infield here, but it’s kind of torn up right now,” Espinosa said. “Both sides were getting some pretty bad hops. I don’t want to make excuses, but it wasn’t exactly the easiest field to play on. It was tough tonight.”
“You can’t really blame the infield,” Desmond said. “You got to be in position to make every play. It doesn’t always work out. I’m not going to make any excuses.”
Said Johnson: “I can’t blame the field. I mean, I’ve played on rough fields. But when balls are smoked and taking a tough little short hop on you, it’s tough to lay a glove on it. It’s a fast infield. Balls ain’t slowing down. The good news is, nobody got hurt out there.”
Before Tuesday night, the Nationals had made 41 errors in 79 games, which meant it would typically take them nine or 10 games to make five errors. In one night, they dropped from seventh in the majors to a tie for 12th. The Nationals’ worst defensive game of the season may skew their totals, but aside from Zimmerman’s inelegant throwing motion, it does not raise any broader concerns.
“We have a fine defense,” Johnson said. “The errors don’t bother me.”
Starter Jason Marquis had helped the Nationals to wins in five straight starts, but on Tuesday, despite leaving with a lead, “he obviously wasn’t sharp,” Johnson said. He lasted five-plus innings, allowing four runs (three earned) on eight hits and four walks. He peppered the area in front of home plate, a product of “cutting myself off” during his delivery, he said.
Once Marquis left, the Nationals’ bullpen yielded seven more earned runs, at least two apiece from Collin Balester, Todd Coffey and Ryan Mattheus.
Ugly as the final score was, the Nationals actually led twice, 1-0 after the first inning and 5-3 after the top of the sixth. They rallied for four runs in the sixth, handing Marquis a two-run lead after a clutch, two-out single gave designated hitter Matt Stairs his second hit of the night and his first RBI this season.
With the lead, Johnson sent Marquis out for another inning after he had thrown more than 90 pitches. “I was hoping he could give me one more inning,” Johnson said. “It just wasn’t meant to be.”
The Nationals relinquished the lead in a span of four batters. Marquis threw his last pitch of the night, which Erick Aybar clobbered into the left field seats. In came Balester, who allowed a single, struck out Bobby Abreu and then gave up a two-run homer to Vernon Wells, giving the Angels the lead for good.
While the Angels added five runs in the eighth inning to make it a blowout, the Nationals still had a chance to take control in the seventh, when they trailed by only a run. They loaded the bases with one out, Wilson Ramos coming to the plate after the Angels intentionally walked Espinosa. Down a run, Ramos grounded into a crucial, rally-killing 5-4-3 double play.
The Nationals may have led all game if not for the game’s most crucial error. Marquis loaded the bases with one out in the fifth on a walk to Alberto Callaspo, the 11th base runner he had allowed while recording only 13 outs. The score remained 1-1, though, because Marquis had used his sinker, which led to eight groundball outs, and four strikeouts to squeeze out of jams. He’d had the bases loaded once before, and induced a chopper to Espinosa for a double play to end the third.
Now, with nowhere to stash Mark Trumbo on the bases, Marquis threw him three straight balls. When it seemed again like Marquis’s start would unravel, he threw another sinker and forced another groundball, one smashed to Desmond’s left. Desmond shuffled over, set to start a double play . . . only for the ball to nick off his glove and dribble into center field, allowing two runs to scamper home.
It was a perfect night for the Nationals to never think about again. They had played poorly under difficult conditions. But at least they could find solace in how infrequently it has happened this year. “What are you gonna do?” Desmond said.