By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 4, 2006
NEW YORK, April 3 -- The final out came at second base, where Jose Vidro, he of the surgically repaired right knee, charged ahead as if he were 21 rather than 31, representing the tying run. "I got to be at second base right there," Vidro said afterward. Yet he wasn't. The throw came in from Carlos Beltran, the New York Mets' center fielder, and Vidro was nailed, the last missed opportunity on a damp, chilly afternoon full of them for the Washington Nationals.
There was Vidro, out at second to end the game, a 3-2 victory for the Mets that opened the Nationals' second season. But the final out -- which left Jose Guillen stranded in the on-deck circle before he could face Mets closer Billy Wagner -- just starts the list of chances gone by.
Nick Johnson and Alfonso Soriano each looked at called third strikes with runners on second and third in the fifth. Jose Guillen grounded into a double play with runners on first and second and no outs in the seventh. The Nationals went 2 for 13 with runners in scoring position, stranding seven men on second and third.
"We didn't have that big, big, big hit to give us this ballgame," Vidro said.
Yet the play that defined the loss came in the eighth, with the Nationals trailing by one, with new left fielder Alfonso Soriano on first after his second hit of the day, with rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman at the plate. Zimmerman pulled a pitch from Mets right-hander Aaron Heilman into the left field corner, and Soriano took off. Though there were no outs, new third base coach Tony Beasley waved Soriano home even as Mets left fielder Cliff Floyd quickly relayed the ball to shortstop Jose Reyes.
So here came Soriano, the subject of so much controversy in a turbulent spring for the Nationals, the man who finally agreed to move to left field from his customary second base -- even though he didn't want to. And wouldn't you know that controversy followed him to home plate in the eighth. Soriano, diving headfirst, arrived at the plate as catcher Paul Lo Duca received the throw from Reyes.
"I thought my hand was in," Soriano said.
First base umpire Tim Tschida, rotating over to cover the plate, didn't see it that way, and he hesitated to make sure Lo Duca had the ball. But the catcher screened the umpire with his body and Tschida didn't see the key development: The ball momentarily sat on the ground.
Lo Duca quickly picked it up and showed it to Tschida, who called Soriano out. "We got a break," Lo Duca said. Instead of tying the game and having the lead run on second base with nobody out, Washington still trailed by a run with one man down.
"We got squeezed," Vidro said.
The problem for the Nationals, though, is that they squeezed themselves far too frequently, with or without an incorrect call from the umpires. Livan Hernandez, who threw six reasonably good innings, failed to cover first base on a rundown, later made an error, and grooved an 0-2 fastball to Mets third baseman David Wright, who sent it deep to right for a sixth-inning homer that proved to be the difference. Soriano, playing his first regular season game in left, made a good running catch and handled all his chances without major problems, but didn't aggressively play a carom of Xavier Nady's double in the fourth, allowing a run to score.
For the entire month of March, the Nationals booted balls all over the rough infields of Florida, where they scuffled through their Grapefruit League schedule. The hope was that when they put on their real road grays and played a game that counted, they would tighten up. They didn't.
"We know why we came up short today," Manager Frank Robinson said.
Last year, the Nationals hit .253 with runners in scoring position, 26th in all of baseball. This year -- with the addition of Soriano, with the quick development of Zimmerman, with Vidro and Guillen both healthy -- they expect to be better. But too many times Monday, when the Nationals had a chance to put pressure on Mets lefty Tom Glavine -- starting his 20th season in the majors -- they failed to finish him off. Somehow, 12 hits turned into just two runs.
"It's very frustrating," Johnson said. He had two key at-bats. In the fifth, Vidro, who went 3 for 5, hit a one-out single and Guillen followed with a double. Glavine fell behind Johnson 3-0, but worked his way back into the at-bat. With the count full, Johnson looked at strike three at his knees -- "It was close," he said -- and he walked back to the dugout. Soriano followed by taking a called third strike as well, and Glavine was out of the jam.
In the seventh, after Wright's homer gave the Mets a 3-1 lead, Vidro came through with a run-scoring single to cut the gap to one. Guillen followed with his easy double-play ball to shortstop. Yet Johnson had still another shot, this one against Heilman, with Brandon Watson at third.
"When they're out there like that, you got to get them in any way you can," Johnson said. "I don't care how. You can't lose opportunities like that."
But Johnson tapped harmlessly back to Heilman and another threat was foiled. Even in the eighth, after Soriano had been called out at the plate, Zimmerman stood at second as the tying run and moved to third on Royce Clayton's groundout. But Brian Schneider struck out and Zimmerman advanced no further.
"I've got to do better in that situation," Schneider said.
If the Nationals are to have any modicum of success in their second season in Washington, they will all have to do better in such situations. For Opening Day, though, they were left to stew -- over a lousy call, some lousy at-bats and a lousy result.
"We have to score more runs the next time we get 12 hits," Robinson said, "and hope it's not in August."