Ortiz Can't Help Himself

Nationals pitcher Ramon Ortiz shows his displeasure after first base umpire Angel Hernandez called him for a balk in the 1st inning.
Nationals pitcher Ramon Ortiz shows his displeasure after first base umpire Angel Hernandez called him for a balk in the 1st inning. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 8, 2006

For a few tantalizing seconds last night, as the ball hung in the air, hooking down the left field line, it appeared something of a minor miracle had occurred in favor of the Washington Nationals. Ramon Ortiz's double would clear the bases, tie the score and make Manager Frank Robinson look like a genius for not pinch-hitting for the pitcher in the fifth inning.

As a roar grew louder and louder from the RFK Stadium crowd, it seemed physics could not allow this bending ball to go foul. But when it finally landed, the ball left an indentation in the warning track dirt, just a baseball seam or two on the wrong side of the chalk. Foul ball. No miracles on this night for a pitcher batting .100.

Ortiz struck out two pitches later. The bases remained loaded, the San Diego Padres still led by three and after his team lost, 3-2, Robinson would have to answer why he didn't pinch-hit for Ortiz.

"It's not a tough decision under the circumstance," Robinson said. "If I had a full team or a full bullpen, there's no hesitation. I had to make the decision with the personnel I had available to me. I couldn't do it there."

The Nationals' bullpen had worked 17 1/3 innings over the previous two games thanks to horrendous starts from Mike O'Connor and Livan Hernandez. Robinson said he never tells his relievers they have a day off, to make sure they're prepared for anything. But he knew only Mike Stanton and Saul Rivera were totally fresh, and that he had to leave his starter in for as long as possible.

So when Ortiz came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out, Robinson felt he had to let him bat against the right-handed Woody Williams, even though lefties Marlon Byrd, Daryle Ward and Jose Vidro were the bench.

"I won't second-guess Frank," Nationals shortstop Royce Clayton said. "He manages a lot with his gut. If Ramon's hit had fell in, it would have made him look like a genius."

Instead, it fell painfully close for Ortiz, who "pitched his butt off," catcher Robert Fick said.

"It was heart-wrenching," Clayton said. "Ramon tries hard. But he's not Babe Ruth by any means. To hit the ball and have it go foul by inches, it's kind of tough. He pitched his heart out, and we just couldn't get him any runs."

As Ortiz left the park Thursday evening, Robinson tracked him down with a message in mind, knowing he needed a long outing.

"Good luck tomorrow," Robinson told him. "You got it."

At some points Ortiz did have it; at some points he did not. Ortiz threw 122 pitches in 6 2/3 innings, surrendering nine hits and three runs. He pitched well enough to win, but not well enough to ensure victory.

"I kept the team in the game," Ortiz said. "I kept the team very close."

His first mistake came in the fourth, when Adrian Gonzalez belted a 2-0 pitch off the facade of the upper deck in right-center for a solo home run and a 1-0 San Diego lead. His other mistakes came an inning later, when four singles and a walk led to a pair of runs for the Padres. Gonzalez proved to be his main nemesis, ripping three hits for two RBI. Otherwise, Ortiz avoided trouble, scattering singles and walks and working out of minor jams.

But the Nationals' offense, which had awoke from a season-long slumber of late, couldn't muster any support for Ortiz. Williams cruised through the first four innings, allowing just three hits.

Even their best hitter, Alfonso Soriano, could be cited as a culprit for that last night. After Ortiz's near-miss, Soriano lined one to left, right into the glove of Dave Roberts. Like Ortiz, he had squandered a bases-loaded opportunity.

Of course, had Ortiz's hit dropped fair, it would not have mattered. In his previous 30 at-bats this season, he had hit three singles and had struck out 13 times.

But Robinson stuck with him, mindful of a haggard bullpen. For a few fleeting moments, moments rife with anticipation, it seemed he had made the right choice.

Robinson thought the ball was headed for fair territory when it left Ortiz's bat. Ortiz had no idea; he put his head down and sprinted to first. Other Nationals were obstructed by the dugout and knew it had a chance, hoping it would land fair.

Instead, the zero next to Washington's name on the scoreboard remained, and the Nationals' dugout sagged with an unusual feeling.

"It was near-excitement," second baseman Damian Jackson said. "It looked great off the bat, but it wasn't a double. It was a play that didn't happen."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company