Nats Give Phillies a Pass

Zach Day reacts after walking Mike Lieberthal in the second inning. The Phillies built a four-run lead and then squelched the Nationals' late rally.
Zach Day reacts after walking Mike Lieberthal in the second inning. The Phillies built a four-run lead and then squelched the Nationals' late rally. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

When the second ball whistled from Zach Day's right hand past the opposing pitcher, Cory Lidle, Frank Robinson had seen enough. The Washington Nationals' manager has little use for pitchers who can't throw strikes, and Day couldn't seem to throw many last night. In the middle of Lidle's at-bat, with the count 2-0, Robinson came to get the ball from Day, who walked dejectedly from the mound.

Day wasn't the only culprit in the Nationals' 5-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in front of 24,956 at RFK Stadium. He was hurt by a pair of errors, one by second baseman Jose Vidro, one by shortstop Cristian Guzman. And a comeback attempt by the Nationals fell just a run short when, with runners on first and third with two outs in the ninth, Phillies closer Billy Wagner got Vidro to fly out, wrapping up his fourth save, and dropping the Nationals back to .500.

But even with those other factors, the status of the Nationals' bullpen -- which is up as often as any in the league -- made Day's outing more difficult for Robinson to stomach. Day (1-2) struggled with his control, walking five in just 5 1/3 innings. He worked behind hitters, something that eats at Robinson, who used four relievers.

"You've got to be better than that as far as pitching out there, period," Robinson said. "Number one, it keeps you on edge, and everybody gets on their heels, when you're out there [throwing] ball one, ball two. Also, it keeps me getting people up in the bullpen, thinking I can't let the game get away. It just kind of wears on you after awhile."

Day's outing -- five runs, three earned -- wasn't horrendous, but exactly half of his 96 pitches were balls. Vidro's errant throw in the second, when he couldn't successfully turn a double play, and Guzman's error in the sixth, which came on a ball that looked as if it would be a double play, were perhaps the most significant plays.

"Walks, and the two errors, cost us big-time tonight," reliever Joey Eischen said. "That was the difference in the game."

In the limited view of one game, that certainly was the case. The Nationals spotted Lidle a 5-1 lead, and though catcher Brian Schneider's two-run triple in the sixth cut the deficit in half, the big picture of the Nationals' entire pitching staff had already been affected. With Lidle -- who had already singled in a run and walked on four pitches -- at the plate, Robinson replaced Day with Hector Carrasco. Asked if he was upset Robinson took him out in the middle of an at-bat, Day said, "I'm not going to go there."

Carrasco contributed to the loss by allowing Placido Polanco's two-run single, and he was replaced by Eischen, the symbol for the Nationals' hard-working bullpen. The left-hander has pitched in 13 of the Nationals' 20 games, tops in the National League. Right-hander Luis Ayala has appeared in 11 games; closer Chad Cordero in 10.

"At times, your starters are going to struggle, and the bullpen's going to take the bullet," Eischen said. "And there's going to be times when our starters are going seven, eight innings a game, and none of us are going to be throwing except Cordero. Those things will pan themselves out over the course of the year."

Right now, though, the situation has Robinson and General Manager Jim Bowden concerned enough that they might soon expand the staff to 12 pitchers, sending down a position player, such as reserve Carlos Baerga.

"We need innings," Bowden said before the game. "We all know that. We'll see how the starters do the next few days, but if they don't pick it up, we'll have to go to 12, because we're not going to hurt our pitchers."

Day understands the bullpen's plight, but said starters "can't think about throwing nine innings." The Phillies' bullpen, in fact, has thrown more innings than the Nationals', and been less effective. So when Vidro tripled off reliever Tim Worrell -- who entered the game with a 19.29 ERA against Washington -- to lead off the eighth, there was hope. Vidro scored on Jose Guillen's sacrifice fly, making it 5-4.

Then, however, it was time for Wagner, he of the 96-mph fastball and nasty slider.

"He's going to come after you," center fielder Brad Wilkerson said.

With two outs in the ninth, though, the Nationals came after Wagner. Wilkerson singled, and Johnson followed with a single to right -- extending his hitting streak to 15 games. But that was it. With runners at the corners and the crowd on its feet, Vidro lofted Wagner's first pitch to left for the final out. And beyond the left field wall, the remaining members of the Nationals' bullpen picked up their gear and headed to the clubhouse, another hectic night's work over, yet another game approaching tonight.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company