The perfect ending to the first homestand in Washington Nationals history was there in Cristian Guzman's hand as he dived across the RFK Stadium infield yesterday, water splashing to his sides, his teammates ready to call a lifeguard. Guzman rose from his spot at shortstop, soggy uniform sticking to his body, ready to fire across the diamond for the game-ending out. But third baseman Vinny Castilla could see, even from his position several feet away, that there was more than just the ball in Guzman's right hand.
"His hand was full," Castilla said, "of dirt and water."
Between innings, the RFK Stadium grounds crew tends to the sloppy infield, which "was so bad," acccording to Nationals second baseman Jose Vidro. He said he was "just glad no one got hutr."
(Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)
So instead of making the throw that would have secured a victory over the Atlanta Braves, Guzman fired low and wide through the drizzle, a throw that drew first baseman Nick Johnson off the bag and skipped toward the Braves' dugout, an error that allowed two runs to score. Thus, instead of posting back-to-back shutouts of the Braves, the Nationals dropped a 2-1 decision that wasted the latest spectacular effort from right-hander John Patterson and left decidedly mixed feelings about the seven-game homestand in which baseball truly returned to Washington.
"When you get off to a 3-0 start on the homestand and you finish 4-3," Manager Frank Robinson said, "you can't feel real good about it."
It was, perhaps, appropriate that the game was decided on such an erratic play, because it served as a reminder that the entire operation at RFK needs more than a little fine-tuning. Home-field advantage? Not yesterday. "We probably didn't deserve to win the game," conceded Atlanta first baseman Adam LaRoche.
Despite a persistent, heavy drizzle that at times became a downpour, the umpiring crew -- led by crew chief Gerry Davis -- never stopped the game, even as Patterson and other pitchers called for maintenance on the pitcher's mound, which Patterson described as "sloppy" and "slick." By the ninth inning -- when Patterson's seven sterling innings of two-hit, two-walk ball looked to be enough to stand up for a momentum-building win -- the grounds crew was pouring bag after bag of a drying agent on the infield in a futile attempt to soak up the puddles.
"That thing was so bad," second baseman Jose Vidro said, "they could've poured I don't know how many tons of that thing out there, it couldn't do anything. It was so bad."
Vidro, in fact, said he was "just glad no one got hurt." Thus, the feeling in the Nationals' clubhouse was not to blame Guzman, who made his second error of the season. He has been consistently solid, and occasionally spectacular, in the field despite monumental struggles at the plate. Guzman refused to comment after the game on anything -- the deciding play, the field conditions.
"It's not his fault," closer Chad Cordero said.
Cordero, rather, preferred to take the blame himself. Jose Guillen drove in the Nationals' only run off Atlanta's John Smoltz with a two-out single in the fourth, and Patterson was brilliant. After three starts that have yielded a 0.86 ERA, it's almost incomprehensible to think he was, just a month ago, without a spot in the rotation. Thus far, he has been the team's best starter.
"I don't know why he wouldn't be," catcher Brian Schneider said. "You look at his ERA and just the way he's dominating hitters right now. If you've watched these games, it's kind of hard not to put him up there as our best starter."
After Hector Carrasco pitched a perfect eighth, Cordero came on to try and get his fourth save. Yet he allowed a single to Marcus Giles, a walk to Chipper Jones and another single to Johnny Estrada, loading the bases. With the rain falling, he came back to strike out Brian Jordan and LaRoche, getting what was left of the announced crowd of 30,728 on its feet.
But Raul Mondesi bounced the next ball to Guzman's right, toward the hole. The shortstop cut it off, and decided he couldn't make a play at second. "Tough call," Vidro said. He threw across and caught Johnson on an in-between hop.
"It had a little sink to it," Johnson said. "There really wasn't much I could do with it."