By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 27, 2005
Tony Armas Jr. was nearly speechless. The Washington Nationals starting pitcher tried to explain how he went from throwing a gem -- allowing no hits through 4 1/3 innings -- to being pulled before the inning ended. And he could not.
This was unfamiliar territory for the Nationals. For a while yesterday, it looked like they would secure yet another trademark come-from-behind victory. But after rallying early to take a lead and later to tie the game, the Toronto Blue Jays pulled away, beating the Nationals, 9-5, to snap their 12-game home win streak.
An afternoon crowd of 33,557 witnessed the Nationals fall one victory short of the franchise mark for consecutive home wins. The team that had been so dominant at RFK Stadium -- not losing here since June 1 -- also saw its lead over the second-place Atlanta Braves narrow to three games.
What's more, the Nationals dressed afterward without their first baseman, Nick Johnson, who left in the seventh inning after injuring his right heel when he came down hard as he crossed home plate. Afterward, team officials awaited results of Johnson's X-ray and MRI exam.
Even if the diagnosis is a bone bruise, team physician Bruce Thomas said, Johnson is doubtful for tomorrow's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates because he had trouble putting weight on the heel after the game. Thomas, however, said Johnson showed no ankle or knee discomfort.
When Johnson scored in the seventh -- stepping around catcher Gregg Zaun following 37-year-old Vinny Castilla's double to left field -- it tied the score at 5. The Nationals had rallied from a 1-0 deficit and then a 5-2 hole.
But this time, the Blue Jays responded with two runs in the eighth and two more in the ninth.
"Late in the game, when you tie it 5-5 and come back and give it up, that's tough," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "We had momentum, and then momentum switches sides."
Armas retired the side in order in the second, third and fourth but encountered trouble when second baseman Orlando Hudson stepped to the plate with one out in the fifth. Hudson deposited a high fastball over the right field fence, tying the score at 2.
Armas had the crowd cheering with two outs in the inning, the bases loaded and a 1-2 count on cleanup hitter Shea Hillenbrand. But the third baseman sliced the ball the opposite way into the right field corner for a ground-rule double, which scored two runs. In an instant, gone was the lead was gone and so was Armas, who was replaced by right-hander Hector Carrasco.
"Can't explain it," said Armas, who allowed three hits and four earned runs over 4 2/3 innings. "Don't know what the hell happened. I let my team down."
Robinson said Armas did not tire but "lost focus and concentration -- and did not make good pitches to a decent fly ball hitter [Hudson]."
Hudson gave his team the lead for good when he belted a two-run home run, his sixth of the season, in the eighth off reliever Luis Ayala, who picked up the loss in one inning of work in which he gave up two hits and two earned runs.
Robinson said Ayala (6-4) got the ball up a little too much, and the pitcher concurred.
"I thought I could throw a slider away and I hung it," Ayala said. "I paid the price."
Castilla had two hits. Second baseman Junior Spivey hit his seventh home run. The Nationals, who had reached a season-best 14 games over .500 after Saturday's victory, saw their pitching slide yesterday. Robinson used five pitchers. The Blue Jays' pitchers were not much better. Starter Gustavo Chacin threw 83 pitches through four innings. Reliever Justin Speier picked up the victory, his first of the season, while pitching just two-thirds of an inning.
Closer Miguel Batista earned his 14th save of the season.
Fifteen of the Nationals' last 21 victories had been come-from-behind wins.
Robinson said before the game that he takes particular pride in their home success this season and they believe they can overcome virtually any obstacle in their ballpark. Yesterday looked as if it might turn out to be a typical Nationals comeback.
"The way it has been going, it's out of character," left fielder Marlon Byrd said. "But that's the game of baseball."