Nats Let One Slip Out of Their Grasp

The Phillies' Kenny Lofton makes it to third safely under the tag of the Nationals' Vinny Castilla in the ninth inning.
The Phillies' Kenny Lofton makes it to third safely under the tag of the Nationals' Vinny Castilla in the ninth inning. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005

By the time Jimmy Rollins reached the plate in the top of the ninth inning, with Esteban Loaiza having one of the best starts of his career, the early-evening sun had finally, mercifully, sunk low behind the stands at RFK Stadium. Already, through a sterling pitchers' duel between Loaiza and Philadelphia's Brett Myers, batter after batter had marched back to the dugout, bat in hand, muttering about the 4:35 p.m. start that had hitters trying to connect with pitches they could hardly see.

"You could just see a black dot thrown, coming at you," Nationals third baseman Vinny Castilla said. "You couldn't see the spin on the ball. Nothing."

But when Rollins faced Loaiza -- who had surrendered just two hits and struck out 11 -- in a scoreless game, the conditions had changed. So what followed made sense. Loaiza unleashed his one mistake of the game, a cut fastball on the inside part of the plate. Rollins turned on it and lifted it over the right field fence, the home run that broke a scoreless tie and pushed the Phillies to a 3-0 victory in front of 27,483 fans at RFK.

"Just one bad pitch, and it cost me the game," Loaiza said. "What else can I say?"

The hitters on both sides had plenty else to say. Even during their normal batting practice time -- about 4:30 p.m. for a 7:05 p.m. start -- the Nationals said they have a tough time dealing with the light at RFK. At that point, the sun casts a shadow between the mound and the plate and offers a glare off the center field wall, making it difficult to see.

"I don't know whose idea it was to play at 4:30 today," Nationals second baseman Jose Vidro said. "I didn't know it was going to be that bad, but it was really bad."

The reason for the late afternoon start was simple, but had little to do with baseball.

"It was a business decision," Nationals President Tony Tavares said after the game. "I had a choice to start any time between 1 and 4:30, and I chose 4:30 because I thought we'd get more people in there. You saw the crowd. I thought, with school not out yet, we'd get more people who could leave work a little early and more students who would be out of school already.

"No one pressured us into this. We made the decision. And it was the same for both sides."

Indeed, it was, and that was one reason Myers was able to match Loaiza nearly pitch for pitch. Early on, Myers struggled with his control, walking three of the first five men he faced. The Nationals, in fact, stranded a runner at third in each of the first two innings.

"I don't think any of us knew how important that was at the time," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said.

But the turning point of the game may have been Myers's first at-bat in the top of the third. The result was unspectacular, a pop-up to second. But it was the first time Myers got to experience the conditions from the other side.

"That's when I decided to go right at them, because I knew how tough it would be to see," Myers said. "You could tell. Guys were taking weird swings."

With that, Loaiza and Myers treated the crowd to a wicked fight. Myers yielded four hits in his seven innings, and left with no runs on the board. Loaiza retired 22 of the first 23 men he faced, and the only hits he allowed through eight innings were singles from Jason Michaels, one a slow grounder just out of Vidro's grasp, the other a lazy floater into short left-center that Nationals center fielder Ryan Church might have caught -- had he been able to see it off the bat.

"No chance," Church said.

Which is exactly what the Phillies had against Loaiza through eight innings. When he struck out pinch hitter Jose Offerman with runners on first and second to end the eighth, the crowd roared and Loaiza pumped his fist twice as he walked off the mound. He had thrown 105 pitches, yet there was no question who would pitch the ninth.

"I wanted to go out there," Loaiza said, "and keep on battling."

But Rollins led off the inning by hitting Loaiza's 109th pitch for his third home run of the season. When Kenny Lofton followed with a single, Robinson came to get Loaiza, who received a standing ovation. Relievers Joey Eischen and Luis Ayala allowed the Phillies two more runs, and a strange day ended, appropriately, at dusk, with the Nationals slipping like the setting sun, back to .500 (11-11).

"He pitched an outstanding game, and we lost," Robinson said. "We can't afford those things. We cannot afford to lose games like that. Those are the games we have to win."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company