By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2006
ST. LOUIS, April 29 -- They had put themselves in position to overcome the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, Chris Carpenter, who allowed one run in his seven innings. They had put themselves in position to overcome the league's reigning MVP, Albert Pujols, who hit a jaw-dropping, tiebreaking homer in the bottom of the eighth. And with the game in the balance -- trailing by a run in the top of the ninth, two outs and the bases loaded -- the Washington Nationals had their best, most patient hitter at the plate in the person of Nick Johnson, the leading hitter in the National League.
"What better situation," Manager Frank Robinson said, "could you ask for?"
Jason Isringhausen, the closer for the St. Louis Cardinals, had just walked three men in a row. And here came the first pitch to Johnson, a fastball on the outside part of the plate. Surely he would take it, for he sees more pitches per at-bat than any hitter in the league.
"Good pitch," Johnson said. And so he swung. The result: a dribbler back to the mound, a metaphor for the month of April for the Nationals. Isringhausen scooped it up, tossed to Pujols at first, and the Cardinals had a 2-1 victory Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium, a game full of effort, intrigue -- and the awe-inspiring Pujols, who set a major league record by hitting his 14th homer in April, breaking the mark previously held by Luis Gonzalez and Ken Griffey Jr.
"Fourteen bombs in the month of April?" said Nationals right-hander Jon Rauch, the man victimized for the homer. "You tip your hat, and you go on."
Before that moment, though, so much went into this result. Start with a resurgent Livan Hernandez, the would-be ace of the Washington staff who tossed seven innings in which he allowed three hits and just one unearned run, finally getting his ERA under 6.00. As Robinson said, "It was 'Livo' -- the real, true 'Livo' for the first time this year."
Turn, too, to right fielder Jose Guillen, who coughed up a run in the first by taking his eye off a fly ball from Pujols and trying to double a runner off first, what he called a "rookie mistake." The resulting error put runners on first and second with one out, and the Cardinals scored their only run off Hernandez on a sacrifice fly two batters later.
"I should catch that ball," Guillen said. "I'm pretty sure that cost us pretty much the whole game right there."
Except Guillen got it back, too, with a laser-like homer in the fourth off Carpenter, a solo shot that tied the game. Two batters after that, Nationals utility man Damian Jackson was ejected for arguing balls and strikes from the bench. "I disagreed with the call," Jackson said of a pitch to Marlon Byrd, and because Ryan Church was back at the team hotel with flu-like symptoms, the Nationals were suddenly left with just three men -- Marlon Anderson, Daryle Ward and Matthew LeCroy -- on the bench.
Had they not left eight men on base through the first eight innings, it might not have mattered. But they did, and when Hernandez completed the seventh inning, the game was still tied. Hernandez, known for wanting to complete all of his starts, had thrown 99 pitches. Yet this has been a difficult start to the year for the big Cuban. He wanted to come out. He wanted to have something upon which to build.
"I want it to be positive for the next time," Hernandez said.
So in came Rauch, the Nationals' most effective reliever to date. He threw a ball to Pujols, followed by a pitch Pujols fouled off, followed by another ball. It was a delicate moment. Two more balls, and the lead run would be on first base with Jim Edmonds, an accomplished, veteran hitter, coming up. Come in with a strike, though, and you're flirting with disaster.
"We know what kind of damage he can do," catcher Brian Schneider said. "But we can't just throw four balls there and put the lead guy on. We got to try to make good pitches."
So Rauch tried again, a fastball outside. Rauch felt it tailed back in too close to Pujols. Schneider saw it as off the plate. Either way, Pujols -- who can handle any pitch at any time in any count -- connected with it, driving it the opposite way to right field, where it landed in the Cardinals' bullpen for a 2-1 lead.
"When a guy goes out and gets a ball off the plate," Schneider said, "where do you go now?"
Pujols, just 26 but with 215 homers already, has a scary answer. "I have a chance to get better," he said.
Whether that's possible will be determined in the coming months and years. Saturday, the Nationals still had a chance to win. Isringhausen retired the first two men in the ninth, then walked pinch hitter Ward on a full count. With Alfonso Soriano up, Robinson waited till there was a full count to pinch-run Anderson for the lumbering Ward, and Isringhausen missed again. Jose Vidro followed, this one on four pitches, none of them particularly close.
Johnson was next. He is unusually selective at the plate, and sometimes has to talk himself into being more aggressive. In all of baseball, only Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees sees more than Johnson's 4.58 pitches per plate appearance. Yet when Isringhausen sent that fastball barreling in on him, Johnson couldn't lay off.
"Just went after it too hard," he said. "I didn't let it come to me."
And therefore, the Nationals let the opportunity for a victory get away from them.