Hernandez Puts on Show, But Phillies End the Act

Phillies second baseman Chase Utley reaches first base on a bunt single, beating the throw to the Nationals' Nick Johnson in the second inning.
Phillies second baseman Chase Utley reaches first base on a bunt single, beating the throw to the Nationals' Nick Johnson in the second inning. (By Rusty Kennedy -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 20, 2006

PHILADELPHIA, April 19 -- Joey Eischen always has a bit of a crazed look in his eye, as if he might as soon run through a wall as hold a polite conversation. Mike Stanton is more laid-back, the veteran from Texas who has pitched in pennant races and World Series, the brightest stages in the sport. Between them, they have 1,343 appearances in the majors, the pair of left-handers who are supposed to provide balance to the Washington Nationals' bullpen.

Yet Wednesday night, here was each of them, unable to throw strikes when that's all the moment called for. Eischen, the 35-year-old who appears to be fighting for his career, walked two men in the eighth to allow the Philadelphia Phillies to tie the game, and Stanton walked two in the 10th, the key moments in a disheartening 7-6 loss that ended the Nationals' modest three-game winning streak.

Afterward, there was consensus about how all this happened.

"They didn't give us a chance," Manager Frank Robinson said. "You can't defend walks."

Sound harsh? Listen to the pitchers' self-assessments.

"I [messed] around and walked two hitters," Eischen said. "I was being a [wimp] on the mound."

And that was before Stanton walked the two men in the 10th, leading to Ryan Howard's one-out, first-pitch single to right that scored Bobby Abreu with the winning run.

"There's no excuse to go out there and miss in one spot consistently and not make the adjustment," Stanton said. "I'm supposed to be a major league pitcher, and I have to be able to make the adjustment right there. I just didn't do it."

Thus, the Nationals wasted what might have been an encouraging performance from right-hander Livan Hernandez, who was better at the plate than he was on the mound.

Hernandez entered the game having yielded as many homers as anyone in the National League, and when he wakes up on Thursday morning, he should be all alone in first. He gave up a second-inning, two-run shot to Howard, a solo shot to David Bell in the fourth, and the killer -- a two-run blast to Abreu in the eighth, one that closed a three-run Nationals' lead to 6-5. He has allowed nine homers in four starts, and when Robinson was asked if he was concerned, he said, "Absolutely."

"I can pitch better than this," said Hernandez, whose ERA moved to 7.11 after his 7 1/3 -inning outing. "I know that."

He cannot, however, hit much better. He answered Howard's homer with a solo homer of his own, the eighth of his career, and followed with two doubles, a 3-for-4 night in which he scored three runs. That was part of what seems to be an offense that is starting to get going.

Second baseman Jose Vidro went 3 for 5 with three RBI to raise his average to .393. Center fielder Ryan Church hit a solo homer, his fourth shot in three games, becoming the first member of the Washington-Montreal franchise to homer in three straight games since Tony Batista in September 2004. Even right fielder Jose Guillen, who had missed four straight games with a strained muscle in his rib cage, returned to the lineup and went 2 for 4, all part of a 14-hit attack that helped build that 6-3 lead.

"With our bullpen," Vidro said, "I thought this was going to be a 'W.' "

When Hernandez couldn't get out of the eighth, Robinson turned to Eischen, long one of his favorites. Eischen battled tendinitis in his shoulder during spring training, and he has struggled in the regular season, toting an 18.00 ERA into Wednesday's appearance.

Asked how he felt physically, he said: "I guess I'm all right. You won't hear me complain."

With a runner on first and the Nationals leading 6-5, Eischen got ahead of Chase Utley, 1-2, then let him get away, moving the tying run into scoring position. He then got ahead of Howard, 1-2, but let him get away as well, loading the bases. Right-hander Gary Majewski induced grounders from the next two men, but that was enough to push across the tying run -- and enough to deflate the Nationals.

"How can you get two strikes on the hitters," Robinson wondered, "and you can't throw another strike?"

It happened, too, to Stanton in the 10th. He walked Abreu on four pitches to start the inning, struck out Shane Victorino, then walked Utley on five, missing away time and again. That brought the total for the Nationals' two lefties -- the only lefties on the staff -- to four left-handed hitters faced on the night, four of them walked.

"The harder I tried [to adjust], the further away it got," Stanton said. "There's simply no excuse for that whatsoever. They didn't really do anything special -- stand up there and take four, and then throw a slider right down the middle."

The slider was to Howard, and he pulled it hard into right. Guillen's throw was late and off-line, and Abreu scooted home with the winning run.

The result brings into question how long the Nationals can stick with Eischen, in particular, especially with lefty Bill Bray waiting in Class AAA New Orleans.

"What I got's what I got," Eischen said. "If it ain't good enough, it ain't good enough. I'm going to keep battling.

"It's been really hard. I really take the way I pitch to heart. I'll go home and think about this all night."

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