Nats Draw a Blank

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 10, 2005

PHILADELPHIA, July 9 -- There's no telling what would have happened, because the Washington Nationals could scarcely manage a sharply hit ball through the infield, let alone a run-scoring single that might have won them the game. But the fact of the matter is this: When John Patterson stood in the on-deck circle Saturday afternoon in the eighth inning at Citizens Bank Park, endured a moment of confusion, and then headed to the batter's box, his only job was to bunt the ball on the ground, and move catcher Gary Bennett to second.

To be sure, Patterson had performed all the other aspects of his job description flawlessly, baffling the Philadelphia Phillies with a well-placed fastball and a sharply breaking curve. But in a scoreless game, the Nationals needed a run, however it might have come.

"That's part of a pitcher's job," Manager Frank Robinson said, "to be able to sacrifice."

Yet at that moment, Patterson couldn't. The play that ultimately decided the Nationals' 1-0 loss to the Phillies was David Bell's bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth, a resilient at-bat in which he fouled off three two-strike pitches from Nationals reliever Hector Carrasco before lifting the ball to deep left-center, easily bringing home Bobby Abreu.

But in the Nationals' worst week of baseball since May, it is the plays like Patterson's failed bunt attempt that stand out, a direct contrast to how the team has lifted itself into first place in the National League East. Make plays like that, and its lead over Atlanta might be more than 2 1/2 games after the Braves' loss last night.

It is the second time in three days a pitcher failed to get down a bunt in a key spot. Tony Armas Jr. struck out against the New York Mets in the fifth inning Thursday, unable to move Matt Cepicky to third. The Nationals didn't score in the inning, and went on to a 3-2 loss in the 11th.

"Today, we didn't do a good job offensively," second baseman Jose Vidro said, "and we missed another opportunity with the bunt again. It's just not good. We're not doing that job that we were doing last week, getting those big hits, getting those little things going. We're not doing that right now."

They were unable to do anything against Phillies starter Corey Lidle, who has never lost to the Washington-Montreal franchise, and controlled the Nationals from the start. He didn't allow more than one base runner in an inning, yielded only five singles and one walk, and the Nationals only once advanced a runner to scoring position.

"Even in the bullpen," Lidle said, "I knew I was going to be hitting my spots."

Patterson matched him, and in some ways was better, allowing just two hits in his seven innings, singles to Kenny Lofton in the first and Jimmy Rollins in the third. He matched a career high by striking out eight, including the meat of the Phillies' order in the fourth -- Abreu, Pat Burrell and Chase Utley.

"His curveball," Bennett said, "was outstanding today."

Still, Robinson stewed a bit on the bench. The Nationals are limping into the all-star break, though in their four losses this week, they haven't been outscored by more than three runs. There was an opportunity here, another close game, yet they were letting Lidle take it away.

"Anybody who walks out there, you should be able to hit," Robinson said. "Hell, I haven't seen a pitcher yet that walked out there that couldn't be hit. Hell, Cy Young gave up his amount of hits -- and Lidle don't come close to Cy Young."

Whether Lidle impersonated Young or not, the Nationals couldn't rally. Bennett walked to lead off the eighth, and Patterson -- who had already been told he wouldn't return to the mound, having thrown 108 pitches -- stood in the on-deck circle, unsure whether he would hit. Robinson's bench is thin as consomme -- what with shortstop Cristian Guzman, second baseman Junior Spivey and infielder Tony Blanco on the roster but dealing with various maladies -- so the manager considered his options. At one point, ace Livan Hernandez, an accomplished hitter, had a bat and looked like he might come up to bunt, but he wasn't wearing a jersey. So it was left to Patterson, who has four successful sacrifices this year.

"I had gotten all my bunts down this year," he said.

Not this time. He missed the first pitch, took a ball, bunted foul, then missed the last attempt. The inning ended when Brad Wilkerson flew to left and Jamey Carroll grounded to first. Bennett never advanced, and, thus, the Nationals' offense never had a chance.

"You can't expect to win a ballgame when you don't score runs," Robinson said, "and we didn't even threaten to score a run today."

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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