By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 11, 2006; E01
This is supposed to be happening in New Orleans or Harrisburg or some other minor league hamlet where pitchers can implode and it is labeled part of the learning process, not a disaster. But in the Washington Nationals' position -- one that calls for equal parts duct tape, glue and hope just to hold things together -- minor leaguers must appear in major league games, and the outcome is somewhat predictable.
Last night, reliever Travis Hughes hit two batters and allowed two runs in a single inning, The Nationals fought back from a four-run deficit anyway. Enter the next minor leaguer, Ryan Wagner. And that decided the game, for Wagner gave up a two-out, two-run double to Wes Helms in the eighth inning, lifting the Florida Marlins to a 9-6 victory over the Nationals in front of an announced crowd of 21,304 at RFK Stadium.
These are the choices Manager Frank Robinson has now, guys who have spent scant time in the majors this season. Hughes and Wagner had combined for five big league appearances this year prior to last night. But Robinson can't use what has become his group of reliable relievers -- right-hander Jon Rauch, lefty Micah Bowie and closer Chad Cordero -- each and every game. So take a couple of antacids, make the trip to the mound, and hope.
"You know what you have going in," Robinson said. "And what you hope you do, is you hope you get a decent performance out of them when you call on them. One thing you're not going to have from them is consistency, that's the thing. You might get it one night, but you're not going to get it three or four nights" in a row.
The performance by the Nationals' bullpen -- Saul Rivera allowed another run in the ninth to make it five runs in three innings of work -- overshadowed so many other developments on the night, all of which added up to the Nationals' fourth loss in five games, two of three to the Marlins in this series. The game featured not only Alfonso Soriano's major league-leading 19th outfield assist -- perhaps his best defensive play of the year, one which he caught a sinking line drive off the bat of Miguel Cabrera and doubled a runner off first -- but also his 36th home run, a solo shot in the fourth that reached the mezzanine level in left field.
When the ball traveled out of the park, Soriano admired it, standing just a few steps away from the batter's box. By the time he came to the plate again in the seventh inning, the Nationals -- because Hughes had allowed a two-run homer to Dan Uggla in the top half of the frame -- trailed 6-2.
The Marlins countered by inserting right-hander Sergio Mitre, who hadn't pitched in a major league game since May 12 after battling shoulder problems. He was activated only Wednesday. Mitre's first big league pitch in three months was a fastball that ran inside on Soriano. Ball one.
"A warning," Robinson said, "should have been issued on the first pitch."
Yes, Soriano had watched his home run for quite some time. Yes, Hughes had, in the previous inning, hit Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera, who went 7 for 11 in the series. But Florida Manager Joe Girardi told reporters that Mitre was, considering the long layoff, rusty, and the Marlins' strategy is to pitch Soriano inside anyway.
So Mitre's second pitch was inside, as was his third.
"You're up four runs in the ball game, 3-0, nobody on, and you're the catcher," Robinson said. "You're going to sit behind the hitter inside? Is that what you're going to do? Of course not."
The fourth pitch never reached catcher Miguel Olivo. Instead, it hit Soriano. Home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom issued warnings to both teams.
"That surprised me," Soriano said. "But it's part of the game."
Intentional or not, it started the Nationals' only true rally of the night. By this point, they had already squandered a ridiculously good opportunity in the first inning, when Marlins starter Anibal Sanchez threw 12 balls among his first 14 pitches, walking the first three men he faced. The Nationals' result: A pop-up from Nick Johnson and a double play from Austin Kearns.
"We always remember the end of games," Robinson said. "If you take care of business early on, it wouldn't come to that at the end."
Yet here, it did, and Mitre's control troubles -- he walked the next two men he faced -- led to four runs for the Nationals. Johnson, 1 for his previous 10 with runners in scoring position, laced a two-run single, and with two outs, Brian Schneider and pinch hitter Daryle Ward came through with run-scoring hits, Ward's double tying the game at 6.
So the ball went to Wagner in the eighth, and he might have gotten the job done. Josh Willingham (4 for 5 with a homer) led off with a groundball single to shortstop, and with one out, Olivo served a ball into right, a bloop single. Yet Wagner -- a former first-round pick acquired in last month's trade with Cincinnati -- got Reggie Abercrombie on a pop-up, then battled Helms to a full count. Schneider, the catcher, called for a fastball.
"We wanted it in," Wagner said. "I got it in. He just got the bat head out there enough to keep it fair, and that was it."
Indeed, it was. Wagner's further analysis: "Over 162 games, these things are going to happen." Yet with nine Nationals' pitchers on the disabled list, it likely will happen more frequently now.
"I can't wear Rauch and Bowie and Cordero out in every ballgame," Robinson said. "Somebody else has got to do the job for me -- and get it done."