Nationals' Defense 'Springs a Leak'

The Marlins' Josh Johnson pitches seven effective innings against the Nats, but does not figure in the decision.
The Marlins' Josh Johnson pitches seven effective innings against the Nats, but does not figure in the decision. (By Wilfredo Lee -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

MIAMI, Aug. 22 -- This is how it goes for the Washington Nationals in these long, dreary days of August. Take the lead, then give it right back. Make a good pitch to a savvy hitter, then watch a fielder boot the ball. Tie the score in the top of the eighth inning, then give it away in the bottom half, tossing in a bit of unsightly defense for good measure.

"We seem like we're the kid at the dike, you know?" Manager Frank Robinson said. "Put one finger in this hole, and another one springs a leak. Put one over there, and the other one springs a leak. We're losing ballgames in any way, all ways, that we can. It makes it tough."

Tuesday night's 7-5 loss to the Florida Marlins had leaks all over the place, too many for 25 men with 25 sets of fingers to cover. But the crucial elements came in that bottom of the eighth, immediately after Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson hit a solo homer that tied things up, that provided momentum.

And all it took to fritter away that momentum? One ground ball that third baseman Ryan Zimmerman couldn't catch, a throw Johnson didn't make and an error from shortstop Felipe Lopez on the play on which the final two runs scored. All that mayhem allowed the Marlins a three-run eighth, sending the Nationals to their fourth straight loss and 12th in 17 games.

They are now a season-worst 18 games under .500, and the hopes of somehow climbing out of last place in the National League East -- a position they have held all by themselves since June 29 -- are growing more remote by the day.

"You have to look at the big picture," Robinson said.

The big picture, the Nationals' front office says, is that these are rebuilding times for an outfit that badly needs overhaul. Young players -- particularly pitchers -- are thrown onto the field every night, and any thought of consistency is unrealistic.

But for three hours each day, the development of the big picture -- being patient, waiting two or three summers before enough talent has been stockpiled to truly contend -- can be painful to watch. It was that way Tuesday, a night when converted reliever Jason Bergmann pitched decently through five innings, allowing Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez a leadoff homer in the first and a two-out RBI single in the fifth, but nothing else.

That effort allowed the Nationals to scrape a few things together against Florida right-hander Josh Johnson, who led the National League in ERA (2.84) coming into his 20th start of the year -- the main reason he is one of Zimmerman's main contenders for the NL rookie of the year award. Yet when Austin Kearns broke a 4-for-38 slump with a solo shot off Johnson in the top of the sixth -- just Kearns's second homer since he arrived in a trade with Cincinnati more than a month ago -- the Nationals led, 3-2.

So how did they respond? By handing the lead right back.

"I have to make better pitches," Bergmann said. He didn't in the bottom of the sixth, allowing Cabrera a leadoff triple, then leaving a 1-0 change-up up in the strike zone against Mike Jacobs, who clobbered it for a two-run homer. The Marlins were back up, 4-3.

Yet Josh Johnson's night was over after seven innings, and Nick Johnson got to Taylor Tankersley, driving a fastball deep to center field, his 19th homer of the season. Johnson had just two RBI in his previous nine games. Couple the homer with a run-scoring single in the third, and he matched that total Tuesday night.

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