Slowly, methodically, unthinkably, the Washington Nationals chipped away at Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay. They had not scored in their previous 30 innings against him. Wednesday night, they had managed two lonesome singles. And now here they were, pushing him to the brink in the ninth inning, sending the tying run to second base with one out.
And then, yet again, Halladay reminded all 16,914 at Nationals Park why he is Roy Halladay, reigning Cy Young winner, crusher of dreams. He finished off a complete-game, 3-2 victory over the Nationals by striking out the last two batters he faced with the tying run standing on second base. The Nationals made him squirm, at least, which would have to suffice.
“You’re always confident,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “We certainly felt that, ‘Okay, let’s go. We kept it close. A couple hits together and see what happens.’ That’s what we did. We had a chance.”
One of John Lannan’s best starts against the Phillies and scoreless innings by Chad Gaudin, Doug Slaten and Brian Broderick kept the Nationals alive. With two outs in the ninth, Halladay’s 123rd pitch of the night caught just enough of the outside corner to freeze Ivan Rodriguez for his ninth strikeout of the night, ending a ferocious rally that, when the inning began, given Halladay’s previous dominance, seemed impossible.
Halladay overwhelmed the Nationals for eight scoreless innings, allowing only two hits, both singles to Adam LaRoche, who had to talk his way into the lineup despite a left groin strain. In the ninth, the Nationals came alive.
Rick Ankiel led off with a double to right-center. Jayson Werth singled to left. Nix roped a single to right to break Halladay’s spell over the Nationals.
After LaRoche popped up, Danny Espinosa eked out an infield single, scoring Werth. Suddenly, the Nationals were within a run and had the tying and winning runs on base.
“Everyone talks about what Jayson brought,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “That’s one thing that Jayson brought to our team: That never-say-die mentality. He wants to win. He comes in here and makes us all believe in ourselves.”
Riggleman sent up Matt Stairs to pinch-hit as Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel checked on Halladay at the mound. Stairs struck out on three pitches, and Rodriguez also looked at strike three. As the Nationals’ frenzy threatened Halladay, he relied on his unholy combination of sinkers, cutters, sliders and change-ups and squashed the Nationals’ comeback.
“Just happened a little too late,” LaRoche said.
Before the rally, Lannan may have cleared a hurdle against the Phillies, the team that’s haunted him more than any other. In his 11 prior starts against them, the Phillies have knocked the left-hander around to the tune of a 6.09 ERA, Lannan’s worst among the teams he’s made at least five starts against.
Lannan allowed one extra-base hit, induced three double plays and recorded 15 of 18 outs with groundballs or strikeouts as he surrendered three runs, two earned, in six innings. At the outset, Lannan stayed with Halladay pitch-for-pitch. After three innings, neither team had scored and Halladay had faced 12 batters — one fewer than Lannan.
But Lannan could not prevent the occasionally shoddy defense behind him. His first trouble came in the fourth, and he could not be blamed for any of it. Shortstop Desmond started the inning by bobbling a relatively routine grounder by Jimmy Rollins, allowing the leadoff runner to reach.
“I took it for granted a little bit,” Desmond said.
Lannan walked over to Desmond with encouragement. “I told him afterward, that wasn’t going to make a difference,” Lannan said. Undeniably, though, it did.
Ryan Howard followed with a groundball up the middle, fielded by shifted third baseman Jerry Hairston. Rollins kept running with no one covering third and collided with Desmond, who was called for obstruction, giving the base to Rollins.
“It’s just an unfortunate play,” Riggleman said. “Because [the ball] might come to second, Desi has got to be there. It was kind of unavoidable.”
Ben Francisco, the next batter, scored Rollins with a groundout.
The Phillies rallied for two more runs in the fifth against Lannan, piecing together three singles, a walk and a hit batter. At the time, it seemed like Halladay wouldn’t need those two runs. When it ended, they were the difference.
The end result would not allow Lannan, or anyone else in the Nationals’ quiet clubhouse, to find solace.
“Going against a guy like Halladay, you’ve got to match him, and I didn’t do that,” Lannan said. “I won’t be happy until we beat them.”