Nats Take Long Way To a Loss

Nats first baseman Nick Johnson collects a ground ball hit by the Reds' Luis Lopez in the 4th inning.
Nats first baseman Nick Johnson collects a ground ball hit by the Reds' Luis Lopez in the 4th inning. (By Al Behrman -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 25, 2005

CINCINNATI, May 24 -- This was the series they needed to win, not lose in excruciating fashion. If the Washington Nationals had any hope of holding things together through enough injuries and ailments to populate a hospital wing, they had to come to Cincinnati and take, at a minimum, two of three games from the lowly Reds.

But the Nationals have nothing to show for their first two nights at Great American Ball Park. How's this for a tough loss? Strand 17 runners, 11 in scoring position, yet come back to tie the game in the ninth. Then, fail to score against the newest Red, reliever Randy Keisler, recalled from the minors Monday to replace the team's all-time saves leader, Danny Graves, who was designated for assignment -- essentially cut.

Then, with all the Reds' position players already used, allow the game-winning single to Keisler, a groundball through the drawn-in infield that scored Jason LaRue from third with the run that provided a 4-3 victory in the bottom of the 14th.

"We just squandered too many opportunities over the course of the ballgame," Nats Manager Frank Robinson said. "We've been doing that lately. We just can't get the big hits. We can't put anything together. . . . You've got to take advantage of the opportunities when you have them, and we didn't."

So forget a fairly gutsy, if not sharp, performance from ace Livan Hernandez, who failed to win for the first time in seven starts, allowing three runs in the first inning on a bases-loaded double from Austin Kearns -- and nothing else. Toss aside a two-out, RBI single from pinch hitter Carlos Baerga in the top of the ninth, a hard grounder down the right field line that briefly gave the Nationals life.

"That's no consolation," Robinson said.

There is little consolation, because the loss leaves the Nationals with only one way to finish a nine-game road trip with a winning record -- beat the Reds on Wednesday, then sweep the St. Louis Cardinals, the best team in the National League. The reward then? Return to Washington to face the two best teams in the NL East -- Atlanta and Florida.

"First and foremost," catcher Brian Schneider said, "you've got to win tomorrow."

If not, Washington will be swept in a three-game series for the first time all year -- and in particularly painful fashion. Tuesday night, the Nationals left runners in scoring position in the first, third, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th innings. In only one of the first 12 innings did they fail to get a hit, yet they were 3 for 17 with runners in scoring position.

Even with those significant struggles, they squeezed across a run in the ninth, using a two-out, RBI single from pinch hitter Baerga to tie things up, giving them some hope. From the second through the 13th -- a span of 12 innings -- Hernandez and relievers Chad Cordero, Gary Majewski and Luis Ayala shut out the Reds.

The game was finally decided in the 14th, when Ayala returned for his third inning of work -- his longest stint of the year.

"It was an unusual situation," Robinson said.

After Kearns drove center fielder Brad Wilkerson to the wall for the first out, LaRue singled, bringing up light-hitting second baseman Luis Lopez. Lopez, just 1 for 5 to that point, ripped a line drive to right. Nationals right fielder Jose Guillen came in to try to pick it off the grass, but it glanced just under his glove and squirted past for a double.

That brought up Keisler with runners on second and third, and the Reds had no position players remaining to pinch hit. So he slapped a ball just to the left of lunging shortstop Jamey Carroll.

"I don't know if I got it, if [LaRue] was running on contact," Carroll said, "if I would've made the play at the plate."

It didn't matter, because it was out of Carroll's reach, the first major league hit of Keisler's career, the grounder that allowed what remained of a crowd of 36,539 to celebrate loudly. For a moment in Cincinnati, the talk about Graves's struggles and subsequent departure stopped, and the focus was on his replacement, who was mobbed by teammates at first base.

The Nationals, in contrast, trudge into Wednesday afternoon's game in extremely tough shape. Cordero and Majewski each pitched two innings, Ayala 2 1/3 , all for naught. They came to Cincinnati with their two best starters -- Esteban Loaiza and Hernandez -- pitching the first two games, and a sweep seemed possible, particularly because the Reds had lost 18 of their last 23 games.

Now, the Nationals are the ones in danger of being swept.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company