By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 21, 2006
PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 20 -- The last several innings of the Washington Nationals' nearly unwatchable 12-10 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies were just intriguing enough to force the simple question, based on an elementary move in which one man replaced another in the lineup.
What if Ryan Zimmerman had stayed in the game?
"The game is just a little fast for me right now," said Damian Jackson, the man who replaced Zimmerman at third base in the fifth inning, when the Nationals trailed by eight runs. "I got to do a better job of trying to catch up to the game."
Instead, the game caught up to Jackson on Sunday, when he committed three of the Nationals' season-high five errors, all in only four defensive innings. To be sure, Washington was done in by the unsteady start of right-hander Pedro Astacio, its 15 strikeouts, and its inability to come through with a game-breaking hit, going 2 for 13 with runners in scoring position.
But as those final innings played out, it was impossible not to wonder how the outcome might have turned had Manager Frank Robinson not replaced Zimmerman, the strapping 21-year-old rookie, with Jackson, who has one start at third all year and has appeared there in parts of five other games. Had Robinson -- with his team down, at one point, 10-1 -- lost hope of a comeback?
"I don't ever give up," he said. "That's not why I took him out. I took him out to give him a little breather. If that's the case [and he had given up], I'd just say, 'All right, let's go into the clubhouse, boys. It's over.' "
Surprisingly, it wasn't over, even with the Nationals down nine runs. Zimmerman's last appearance came in the top of the fifth, when he hit with the bases loaded and the Phillies leading 10-2. Zimmerman stroked a hard liner directly at Philadelphia third baseman Abraham Nuñez, and when Nick Johnson followed with an inning-ending strikeout, Robinson sent Jackson out to play defense for Zimmerman.
"I wasn't surprised," Zimmerman said. "It was 10-1, 10-2. He just wanted to give me some rest. People do it all the time."
Zimmerman has been a stalwart at third base this season, sitting for only 41 of the 1,097 1/3 innings the Nationals have played on defense. Friday night, after he drove in five runs in Washington's only victory in the three-game series here, he acknowledged that while he doesn't consider himself completely fatigued, there is a wear-and-tear element to his first year in the majors.
"You're starting to not feel as good as you were every single day like you were before," he said. "You're getting a little tired. You're getting little bumps and bruises."
Here, then, Robinson figured he had a shot to rest him. And here, to everyone's surprise, came the Nationals.
Backup catcher Brandon Harper began the rally with a three-run homer -- his second of the day, not to mention of his brief career -- in the sixth, cutting the deficit to 10-5. Phillies starter Randy Wolf then walked a man and was replaced by reliever Rick White, who could do little better, allowing a run-scoring double to Marlon Anderson, striking out Alfonso Soriano -- and then walking three straight men. Jackson, hitting in Zimmerman's spot, drew one of those walks. By the time Austin Kearns bounced into a fielder's choice to drive in the sixth run of the inning, it was 10-8.
"The guys kept battling," Zimmerman said.
Jackson's first error came in the bottom of the sixth, when he threw wide of first base on a ball hit by Pat Burrell. The Nationals got out of the inning without any damage, but his shakiness at the position was established. The Phillies knew: A bunt that way might be promising.
In the seventh, catcher Brian Schneider -- inserted earlier for Harper -- pounced on a bunt from Phillies reliever Ryan Madson and threw to third in hopes of gunning down Nuñez. In this case, Jackson applied the tag, but third base umpire Paul Nauert called Nuñez safe. The Nationals felt he was out.
"Clearly," Schneider said. "I didn't even need the replay." Nuñez naturally scored on a sacrifice fly that made it 11-8.
Jackson's major gaffes, though, came the following inning. The Nationals clawed within 11-10 on Schneider's two-run single in the eighth -- giving Washington six RBI from its two catchers on the day. With Aaron Rowand on first, Jackson muffed Mike Lieberthal's bunt for his second error of the day. Nuñez figured the best thing to do would be to bunt the ball again, and in this case, reliever Chad Cordero jumped off the mound and fired to Jackson, who back-pedaled to cover third.
"Initially, I straddled the base," Jackson said, and that's where the problem arose. Jackson felt that Rowand, the runner, kicked Jackson's leg into the bag, and Rowand should have been called out on the force play. Nauert called Rowand safe. The outcome: He scored on a sacrifice fly, and the Phillies -- whose closer, Tom Gordon, wasn't available because of a shoulder problem -- had a two-run lead to take to the ninth.
"It's just the way it goes for me," Jackson said. "I've been getting a lot of tough breaks. I don't know if I deserve it or not. There's nothing I can do."
He considered his trying season, one in which he is hitting .200 and has as many errors as RBI (10). And he considered how it all fit into the course of one long, tough afternoon.
"I took the wind out of our sails," Jackson said. "We had some good momentum rolling, and I think I took the wind out of our sails. I blame the loss on myself."