Nats' Clutch Hits A Long Way Off

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

MIAMI, Aug. 21 -- It's as if they're playing basketball, and they go to the free throw line, where they haven't made a shot in a month. Or perhaps they're golfers with the yips, unable to stride confidently to three-foot putts and knock them solidly into the back of the cup. For the Washington Nationals, the free throws clank off the back of the rim, the gimme putts lip out, and there's almost no chance they'll get a key hit with runners in scoring position.

"It's a mental thing," Manager Frank Robinson said, "and it's also a physical thing."

Right now, it's a crippling thing. The Nationals suffered a 3-1 loss to the Florida Marlins on Monday night in front of several dozen fans -- a crowd that was listed as 9,316 but seemed more like a company picnic -- at Dolphin Stadium. They did so despite a fine effort from left-hander Billy Traber and another home run from left fielder Alfonso Soriano, his 41st of the year.

No, they suffered their third straight loss and 11th in 16 games -- dropping them a season-worst 17 games below .500 -- because in nine chances with runners on second or third, they failed to get a single hit.

Go back to the start of this nine-game trip that began with two losses in a three-game series in Philadelphia: Washington, in such situations, is 5 for 45 (.111).

"I think we try too much," said Soriano, who failed in two at-bats with men on second. "That's what it is."

In truth, Robinson said, it is a combination of factors, and he knows there's no surefire approach to fixing them. Asked what the problem was on this trip in particular, he pointed out that it's "not this whole trip. It's been most of the year." Indeed, the Nationals hit a scant .246 with runners in scoring position, worst in the National League.

It all leaves Robinson wondering how to address it.

"If you harp on it, you harp on it, you harp on it, you put too much pressure on the players to come through in those situations," Robinson said. "And the other thing is, if you don't [mention it], how do I know that they understand what they should be doing, or should do, or the approach that they should have?

"It's been talked about, it's been talked about and it's been talked about. . . . You reason and you reason and you reason, and we just don't seem to be able to do it."

They didn't against Florida right-hander Anibal Sanchez, a rookie who improved to 2-0 with a 2.52 ERA in four starts against Washington after spinning seven innings of one-run ball. When he followed Soriano's homer in the sixth -- a blast to left that staked Traber to a 1-0 lead -- with a pair of walks, he got Nick Johnson to hit a lazy fly ball, Jose Vidro to pop out and Austin Kearns to hit into a fielder's choice. When Ryan Church led off the seventh with a double, Sanchez came through with three straight outs. This system-wide problem won't go away.

"I don't care how much anyone's struggling, you still want to be up there with guys on base to get it done," Kearns said. "If you don't want to be up there with guys on base, you should be at the house."

Even with all those failures, the Nationals stayed in it because of Traber, who has a simple game plan that he carried out beautifully: Throw strikes, let the opposition hit the ball and move on.

"More than anything else," he said, "you just kind of got to know what kind of pitcher you are," and he is a finesse pitcher, not a flame-thrower.

"He knows what he has to do," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "He doesn't take any convincing. The earlier he gets contact from guys, the more of a chance he has."

Traber, at one point, retired 15 of 17 hitters. He worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the sixth by calmly inducing a pop-up. "He pitched a hell of a ballgame," Robinson said.

But with one out in the seventh, Traber threw a curveball to Jeremy Hermida that got away from him -- "a really bad pitch," he said. Hermida stood in the box, turned his shoulder, and allowed it to land softly off his arm.

Hermida took first base. Robinson took exception. The Marlins have now been hit by 11 pitches in 15 games against the Nationals, and Robinson believes they have been ordered to stand in against breaking balls -- even though the rules state that a hitter must attempt to move out of the way in order to be awarded first base.

"They make it a habit, and I'm sure they've been told to do it," Robinson said, "and they do it as a team."

Robinson argued the point, to no avail, with home plate umpire Jerry Crawford. "He was defending his players," Florida Manager Joe Girardi said. "That's what he's supposed to do."

It started the winning rally.

The Marlins bunted Hermida to second, and Hanley Ramirez followed with a ball down the third base line, a sure double that became a triple when Soriano went after it half-heartedly.

Florida then went ahead on Dan Uggla's single up the middle, and Traber's night was over. The Marlins added one more run when Miguel Cabrera singled to left-center. Soriano bobbled the ball -- his 10th error of the season -- and Uggla scored all the way from first.

And in the ninth, the Nationals got yet another man to second, and pinch hitter Daryle Ward came to the plate as the tying run.

The result?

A missed gimme, an air ball of a free throw -- a game-ending grounder to first base.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company