By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006
BOSTON, June 21 -- They came here on such a high that their manager said they might not need a plane to fly north from the District. But on Wednesday night, as the Washington Nationals gathered in the cramped visitors' clubhouse at old Fenway Park, the momentum was gone, the mood was different and any positive vibe had been sucked from the room.
A 9-3 spanking from the Boston Red Sox will do that to a team, particularly if it follows the kind of mismatches the Nationals had endured the previous two nights. If there was a moment when Wednesday night's game turned, it came in the second inning -- before the crowd of 36,464 had completely settled into its seats. That's when Nationals right-hander Shawn Hill loaded the bases with two outs, all to bring up David Ortiz, who lives for such situations. The predictable result -- a grand slam -- put the Red Sox at ease from the start, and sent the Nationals to their eighth loss in 10 games.
"We came in here and got our butts kicked pretty bad," catcher Brian Schneider said. "There's no other way to look at it. It's hard to justify it when we go out there and . . . get beat that bad every game."
The aggregate score of the three games was 26-9, and the Red Sox slugged out 46 hits, including 16 Wednesday to register a stunning .406 average for the series. The three starting pitchers for the Nationals -- Hill, Livan Hernandez and Tony Armas Jr. -- lasted 11 innings among them and gave up 18 earned runs, a horrendous ERA of 14.73.
All this after they stormed back from a seven-run deficit to beat the New York Yankees on Saturday at RFK Stadium, then celebrated perhaps the most electric victory since baseball returned to Washington last year, a 3-2 win over the Yankees in which rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman hit a two-run, walk-off homer.
Three days, three games, quite a difference.
"Nothing went right," Manager Frank Robinson said. "The pitching wasn't very good this series, and the hitting was nonexistent. We just got no offensive production from anybody. We had no chance."
The Nationals led twice in this series, both times by one run, both times in the first three innings of Monday night's game, one that became a 6-3 loss. The potent Red Sox fought every single inning, going down in order only three times the entire series, blowing each starter out of the game before he wanted to leave, then taking it to the beleaguered Washington bullpen. The Nationals' two wins over the Yankees helped thrust the Red Sox into first place in the American League East, and their performance here helped keep the Sox there.
"This is a ballclub that works a lot on hitting," said Ortiz, who leads the American League with 64 RBI. "You see guys that you don't think would be able to handle it when they first came to this team, and out of nowhere you see that the guy is putting up some good numbers, good offensive numbers."
Count Ortiz as the leader of that group. A part-time designated hitter and first baseman with the Minnesota Twins from 1997 to 2002, the Twins didn't offer him a contract following his final year in Minnesota because they felt they couldn't pay him what he would earn in arbitration. At the time, they offered him to the Montreal Expos -- the Nationals' predecessors -- for a song, but the Expos, who were owned by Major League Baseball, didn't think they could afford him either.
So in jumped the Red Sox, and on jumped an entire fan base to the back of the man they now know as "Big Papi." Ortiz has become one of the most feared hitters in the game, and when Hill got himself into trouble in the second, the crowd could almost sense what would happen. Since Ortiz joined the Red Sox, his average with the bases loaded was .364, his slugging percentage .673.
The inning started innocently enough. Hill had already worked his way out of one bases-loaded jam in the first, getting Jason Varitek to ground out. In the second, he retired the first two men. But then, trouble. Consecutive singles from Alex Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis and Mark Loretta -- a trio that combined for seven hits on the night -- loaded the bases for Ortiz in a scoreless game.
"If they can get a roller and get out of that inning," Red Sox Manager Terry Francona said, "they can feel good about themselves."
Which, for the Nationals, would have been a new feeling at Fenway. Instead, Hill went to his best pitch -- a sinker that was supposed to be low and away -- right off the bat. Mulling it over after the game, the rookie -- making his fifth start this year -- second-guessed himself, saying he probably should have thrown a couple of fastballs in on Ortiz's hands, just to keep him honest.
"He was just lunging out over the plate," Hill said, "and got it."
Did he ever. "That wasn't a very good pitch," Robinson said, for it was over the middle, not outside enough. Ortiz sent the ball to straightaway center, his 21st homer of the year, the fifth grand slam of his career, all of them at Fenway Park. "You got to love hitting with the bases loaded up here," Ortiz said.
So the Nationals were knocked back, and they never recovered. They managed all of three hits and one run off Red Sox rookie Jon Lester, who struck out 10 and looked, at times, to be dominant with a four-pitch repertoire. Hill, cognizant of the fact the Nationals' bullpen needed some rest, went out for the sixth to try to save them, but couldn't survive. The Sox batted around in the inning, scoring four runs, and Hill had to be removed with two outs. His final line -- 5 2/3 innings, 12 hits, 8 runs -- bumped his ERA from 2.42 before the game to 4.26 after.
And with that, the Nationals staggered home for their first off day in three weeks, scuffling. "It was just a lost three games here," Robinson said, and with six more games remaining on this road trip, his players couldn't deny it.
"It's kind of hard to think positive," Schneider said, "and say . . . 'Oh, we're going to be okay.' "