Nats' Trip Hurt by Inability to Get Players Home

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 7, 2006

SAN DIEGO, Aug. 6 -- It's hard to blame Micah Bowie for this one, because the left-hander has been so effective for the Washington Nationals, and by the 10th inning Sunday, he was trying to retire his seventh and eighth batters of the day.

It's hard, too, to blame Ryan Church. Maybe, had he extended his arm just a tad farther in center field, he could have tracked down Dave Roberts's fly ball, a shot that turned into a double off Bowie. Roberts scored when Brian Giles singled up the middle in the bottom of the 10th, the decisive run in a 3-2 victory for the San Diego Padres.

You can't blame Livan Hernandez, who pitched effectively for seven innings, allowing only Giles's two-run homer. First baseman Nick Johnson committed an error, but the runner did not score. Alfonso Soriano struck out twice, but he launched a home run to lead off the game.

No, the blame for this loss -- one that ended a nine-game trip with just three victories -- must fall to the Nationals' hitters, who swung through and over and around balls in a variety of situations in leaving 12 men on base and managing just one hit in nine at-bats with runners in scoring position.

"It's been typical of a lot of ballgames and opportunities we've had this year, and they've come out the same way," Manager Frank Robinson said. "This is why we've not been able to put anything together and not be consistent, because we just don't win -- and haven't won -- these type of ballgames."

The credit for the Padres' second win in this three-game series should go to Roberts, the agitator of a leadoff man who tormented the Nationals all weekend, going 7 for 12 with three walks, four runs scored and three stolen bases. "The key," Hernandez said, "is to make that guy out."

The Nationals struggled to do so, and it cost them. On Sunday, Roberts went 3 for 4 with a walk, a run scored and two stolen bases.

Yet even with Roberts zipping all over the park, Hernandez, as Robinson said, "was in control of the game." The Padres could only flail as he started his curveball slow, dialed it a notch down, and then took something more off it still -- helped, he said, by the wind that was blowing out toward the outfield, making the ball flutter even more. After Soriano led off the game with his 35th home run, Hernandez worked his way out of a two-on, one-out situation in the third, then loaded the bases in the fourth with two outs.

That brought up Roberts, who had singled and walked already. Here, though, Hernandez merely taunted him, getting him to 2-2, and then unloading a curveball.

"You could tell he didn't want to swing at it," catcher Brian Schneider said. But Roberts did anyway, even as the ball dropped when he expected it to slide a bit, one of Hernandez's seven strikeouts on the day. The reading on the radar gun was 59 mph. And as Hernandez skipped off the mound toward the dugout, he smiled.

Yet the Nationals didn't expand on that 1-0 lead. They put men on base in each of the first seven innings but didn't score. In the fourth, starter Jake Peavy walked two men to start the inning, and Church laid down a sacrifice. Yet Marlon Anderson popped up, Schneider was intentionally walked and Hernandez grounded out.

It went on. Ryan Zimmerman was stranded after he hit a two-out double in the fifth. Church and Schneider hit singles in the sixth, but Hernandez grounded out. After two walks in the seventh, Austin Kearns's fly ball to center traveled only to the warning track.

"We had a lot of guys on base today," Church said. "We just couldn't get them in."

So it figured that the Padres would. In the bottom of the seventh, Roberts -- who else? -- hit a two-out single and stole second. That brought up Giles.

"You know Livan's going to finesse you," Giles said, "but it's extremely tough when he's able to put his fastball where he wants it."

That Hernandez had done all day, and Robinson said he had no thought of pulling him against Giles. With the count 2-1, Hernandez went back to the curveball, and said it traveled where he wanted it, down-and-in. Giles, though, lined it into the right field seats, and the 1-0 lead became a 2-1 deficit.

That left the Nationals to, somehow, tie the score in the eighth. With one out, Anderson on third, Schneider on first and pinch hitter Daryle Ward at the plate, Schneider looked across at third base coach Tony Beasley. He saw the sign: Steal. The problem: The play wasn't supposed to be on.

"It was my mistake," Beasley said. It worked out, though, because shortstop Geoff Blum couldn't handle the throw, and it skipped into center field, an error that allowed Anderson to score. Robinson termed it "lucky."

"But you don't win games up here on luck," Robinson said. "You win games up here on good execution and fundamentals and playing smart baseball."

That didn't happen in the 10th. When Roberts sent his ball to center off Bowie, Church said, "I had a bead on it." Yet he came up short, seeing the ball drop over his glove.

"You see where it landed, you would hope it would be caught," Robinson said. "You think it should be caught, but what happens and what you feel or think really doesn't count."

What counted was Giles's single that followed. Church came up to throw, but couldn't deliver the ball cleanly, and the play at the plate wasn't close. As the Padres celebrated, Schneider took a few steps toward the dugout, then dropped the ball at his feet. The loss was finalized only moments before, but the seeds for it were sown by those stranded runners that never came home.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company