By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
HOUSTON, April 10 -- When the ball finally settled into Brandon Watson's glove, he wasn't in the position he intended, and the ensuing throw home was more a faint hope than a true chance of gunning down the runner. So it was that just before Watson's high-arcing toss arrived at catcher Brian Schneider, Houston's Craig Biggio slid across the plate with the decisive run. Instead of a momentum-creating win, a pleasant Texas afternoon turned into a disheartening, 12-inning, 5-4 loss for the Washington Nationals, who, like Watson, appear to be just a hair off-balance as they head home for the first time.
Of the five losses in seven games to start this season -- all on the road -- this was the most difficult to stomach because it is exactly the kind of game this team must win. The Nationals came back from a 3-1 deficit after a six-inning start from John Patterson, unexpectedly jumped ahead on a home run from pinch hitter Daryle Ward off devastating Astros closer Brad Lidge in the 10th, then gave it back in the bottom of the inning when Nationals closer Chad Cordero blew his first save opportunity of the year by surrendering a home run to Houston third baseman Morgan Ensberg.
"Obviously," reliever Mike Stanton said, "this was the type of game that we need to win."
Yet they didn't. Last year, when the team arrived at RFK Stadium following a season-opening nine-game road trip, it had the momentum not only of baseball's return to the District after a 33-season absence, but of two stirring wins over the Atlanta Braves to complete a surprisingly stellar 5-4 trip. Now, the Nationals stumble home having dropped two of three to the Mets in New York and three of four to the Astros.
"It's early yet," Manager Frank Robinson said. "We've played what, seven games? Some good teams have gotten off to a rough start already. And some so-so clubs have gotten off to good starts. It's too early."
Yet if the Nationals aren't careful, they could fall into the category of so-so clubs who don't get off to a good start. In a quiet clubhouse afterward, there was a clear sense of opportunity lost.
"I thought we could have won more than two games," second baseman Jose Vidro said. "I don't know what to say. I expect a lot from this ballclub."
As does Robinson, who spent the afternoon watching from various points around Minute Maid Park after receiving word of his one-game suspension earlier in the day, a suspension that followed last week's benches-clearing incident against the Mets. Because warnings had been issued to both teams after Mets right-hander Pedro Martinez hit Nationals right fielder Jose Guillen, and Nationals reliever Felix Rodriguez was subsequently ejected for hitting Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca, suspensions for both Rodriguez and Robinson are automatic, according to baseball's disciplinary rules.
Bench coach Eddie Rodriguez managed the team in Robinson's place, and when Ward sneaked a low liner over the right field fence -- the franchise's first pinch-hit homer in extra innings since 1990 -- Rodriguez was left with the easiest managerial decision in baseball, handing the ball to his closer. Yet with one out, Cordero left a 2-1 fastball up and out over the plate, and Ensberg went with it, driving it deep to the gap in right-center, where it easily found its way into the Astros' bullpen.
Cordero turned his back to the plate, sighed, finished the bottom of the 10th and then tossed a perfect 11th, but the sting remained, and afterward, clubhouse attendants picked up pieces of a shattered chair near his locker. He issued a garbage-time homer to Chris Burke in a loss on Sunday, and Robinson believes his time away playing for the United States in the World Baseball Classic is costing him.
"He's not there yet, believe me," Robinson said. "He's throwing 85, 86 miles per hour. His location is not there. He's just not in game shape."
Last season, when he led the majors with 47 saves, Cordero similarly blew his first save opportunity by allowing a home run at Florida. Now, though, his troubles are of particular concern because of the way he finished the 2005 season. After cruising through August with 43 saves in 47 opportunities and a 0.94 ERA, he wore down over the last month, blowing three saves and posting a 10.29 ERA in September and October. He said emphatically on Monday that he is ready to pitch.
"That's not why I gave up two home runs this weekend," Cordero said. "I just made two mistakes."
With the game tied, the Nationals squandered their best opportunity to take the lead in the 11th, when Watson -- inserted as a defensive replacement for slugger Alfonso Soriano -- and Nick Johnson hit one-out singles. But Ryan Zimmerman and Royce Clayton followed by grounding out, and the game wore on.
Finally, Stanton came on in the 12th, the Nationals' fourth reliever. The veteran lefty allowed a leadoff double to Biggio, who was sacrificed to third. Rodriguez elected to walk both Lance Berkman and Ensberg intentionally, loading the bases for pinch hitter Eric Bruntlett. So it was Bruntlett who lofted the ball to Watson in center, a ball that sent Biggio scampering home.
"I was just trying to get rid of it as fast as I could," Watson said, and that is just how the Nationals will treat this start. They will head home for all of three days, then turn around for six more games on the road. Somewhere in there, they must find some wins.
"Tomorrow's a new day," Cordero said, and he headed out quietly to the bus, to the airport and home.