Before the New York Mets scored three runs in the top of the ninth to break open a tie game, before a few pockets of the crowd of 27,333 at RFK Stadium belted a couple rounds of "Let's Go Mets! Let's Go Mets!" into the crisp spring air, the Washington Nationals suffered a loss far worse than their 6-3 setback to the Mets last night.
It came in the top of the seventh, when Joey Eischen leaped to snare a one-hopper from Mets pinch hitter Kaz Matsui. Eischen had relieved starter John Patterson -- who had given an effective, if not stellar, performance -- in a 3-3 game. He got what Manager Frank Robinson wanted, that ground ball, which looked to be an out. Yet after Eischen fell just to the third base side of the mound, he didn't get up. Matsui was on with an infield hit. Eischen was out with a broken right radius -- a bone in his forearm -- on which he will have surgery today, an injury that will keep him out from eight to 12 weeks.
Vinny Castilla loses in his race to first base as New York's Doug Mientkiewicz stretches for the throw to complete a double play in the second inning.
(Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
"I landed on my arm, and snapped it," he said, teary-eyed, after returning from Washington Hospital Center, where he had X-rays. "I heard it snap."
So did the stability of the Nationals' already fragile bullpen. Luis Ayala allowed the three runs that were the difference last night on a sacrifice fly from Miguel Cairo and Carlos Beltran's two-run double, both in the ninth. That gave the Nationals' relievers just their second loss of the season -- on the field.
But when Eischen is placed on the disabled list today, he will join five other Nationals pitchers. Francis Beltran, Claudio Vargas and Tony Armas Jr. have been there since the start of the season. Relievers T.J. Tucker and Antonio Osuna went down in April.
Yet the sense in the clubhouse was that Eischen -- whose appearance last night was his 15th, keeping him tied with Ayala for most in the National League -- would be hard to replace. He is the staff's only left-hander, and though his stats, 1-0 with a 4.15 ERA, aren't overwhelming, he has an unmistakable presence in the clubhouse.
"That's really one we couldn't afford," second baseman Jose Vidro said.
There is a line of reasoning that says Eischen shouldn't have been in the game when he was. Patterson, though without the form that had him entering the game with the league's best ERA (0.98), pitched six decent innings, allowing a run in the first and two in the fourth, but striking out right fielder Eric Valent to end a threat in the sixth, pumping his fist on the way to the dugout.
Once there, pitching coach Randy St. Claire informed him that, depending on who the pinch hitter for Mets starter Aaron Heliman was in the seventh, Patterson would return to the mound, but might not pitch to a batter.
So it went down: Patterson warmed up. The Mets announced the switch-hitting Matsui. And then, the strange part: Robinson called for Eischen, even though Matsui was hitting .240 from the left side and .360 from the right.
"Doesn't matter to me," Robinson said. "I wanted to turn him around and get him off the left side."
For his part, Patterson, who threw 107 pitches, felt he could have pitched longer.
"I wanted the seventh," he said. "I would definitely have liked to pitch the inning."
The Nationals, though, didn't lose the game right then. The loss came later. Take the bottom of the seventh, with the score still tied at 3. Cristian Guzman singled to lead off, and pinch hitter Jamey Carroll sacrificed him to second. That gave two of the Nationals' best hitters -- Brad Wilkerson and Nick Johnson -- cracks at breaking the tie.
Except with two strikes on Wilkerson, Guzman took off for third. "I was surprised," admitted Wilkerson. Robinson said Guzman either went on his own or missed a sign. Guzman wasn't available to comment. Whatever the case, he was thrown out by Mike Piazza, who had caught just one of 21 attempted base stealers before gunning down Guzman and Johnson last night. Wilkerson ended up striking out, and Johnson never got his chance.
Today, someone at Class AAA New Orleans will get the opportunity to pitch for the Nationals, beginning tonight in Los Angeles. General Manager Jim Bowden hadn't decided who, but some in the organization were leaning toward calling up Armas, who had his best start -- six innings, four hits, no runs -- for New Orleans on Saturday.
Even if it is Armas, everyone in the clubhouse said the team would feel Eischen's loss. Eischen, who exchanged several hugs when he returned in a sling, will feel it, too.
"I need the team," he said, "as much as the team needs me."