Nationals' Comeback Hits Rocky Road

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 8, 2006; 3:05 AM

DENVER, Sept. 7 -- Brian Schneider tried to play it back in his mind, and couldn't.

"What just happened?" he asked, a blank stare on his face in the visiting clubhouse at Coors Field, long after the Washington Nationals waited out a two-hour, 11-minute rain delay, and Thursday night turned to Friday morning.

The answer to Schneider's question could take a while to explain, but the abridged version goes something like this: The Nationals lost a 10-5 decision to the Colorado Rockies when they allowed five runs in the eighth, turning a tie game in which they had fought back into an ugly, error-filled affair.

Former National Jamey Carroll was right in the middle of it all, not only going 3 for 5 with a double, but hitting the ball that turned the game -- a chopper back to reliever Ryan Wagner with two outs in the eighth. The ball was initially scored a single, then ruled an error, but was eventually ruled an infield single.

"We did what we had to do," Schneider said. "And then, all of a sudden, you see five runs on the board, and you say, 'How did that just happen?'"

Manager Frank Robinson wondered the same thing. He lamented Wagner's misplay. He lamented the fact that shortstop Felipe Lopez couldn't find the handle on the ball after it went over Wagner's head, allowing rookie Troy Tulowitzki to score the tie-breaking run. He lamented the fact that Wagner was late to cover first when Todd Helton hit the first of what became three straight infield singles. He lamented George Lombard's error in right, a misplayed line drive. Asked if Lombard just missed the ball, Robinson shot back, "The ball missed him. Should've hit him in the head."

All in all, a frustrating way to start a seven-game road trip, particularly because the Nationals fought back to tie with two runs in the top of the eighth. Time for a rant, Robinson-style.

"We just didn't make the plays, simple plays," Robinson said. "If you can't make those plays, jeez. ... It's disappointing any time you play that bad, give away runs, put people on. We've done that a lot this year. We score, and we go out and give them back."

Starter Jason Bergmann couldn't make it out of the fourth before he gave up five runs, and the Nationals had a difficult time getting to Colorado starter Aaron Cook. Rookies Brett Campbell and Beltran Perez -- two contestants in the Nationals' nightly game of "Name That Reliever" -- actually gave Washington 2-2/3 scoreless innings, keeping the Nationals in the game, and Nick Johnson's 20th homer of the year made it 5-3 in the sixth.

When Cook finally left for reliever Jeremy Affeldt, the Nationals -- who had mastered the art of late-inning comebacks on their just-completed nine-game homestand -- had a chance.

Johnson managed a one-out walk off Affeldt in the eighth, and Jose Vidro followed with a single to put men at first and second. Pinch hitter Austin Kearns scored one run with a single to right, but even though Vidro, who has become notoriously slow, represented the tying run, Robinson didn't pinch run for him.

Vidro was gunned down at third base by right fielder Brad Hawpe. Catcher Brian Schneider followed with the game-tying hit, a double to left that made it 5-5, but the chance at a big inning was lost, and the Nationals had to hope for another solid inning out of Wagner -- and then a ninth-inning rally.

In truth, the ugly eighth wasn't Wagner's fault -- at least of his pitching. Despite a single and an intentional walk, Wagner was in position to get out of the frame when Carroll came to the plate with two outs. The second baseman -- who is playing less regularly as the Rockies look at Kazuo Matsui as an option at second for next year -- hit a chopper back to the mound, and all Wagner needed to do was field it and toss it to Johnson at first.

"I should've had it," Wagner said. "It's one of those things. I don't know if I was trying to throw it before I got it. I got to make it."

The ball bounced off Wagner's glove, and Carroll was safe at first. But the truly damaging part was that Tulowitzki never stopped running around third, and when Lopez raced in to scoop up the ball, he flubbed it, allowing Tulowitzki -- who might have been out had Lopez fielded the ball cleanly -- to score easily.

"Nine times out of 10, Wags makes that play," Schneider said. "And nine times out of 10, Felipe makes that play. That's your out."

The next three men -- Helton, Garrett Atkins and Matt Holliday -- all had infield singles that scored runs, one involving an errant throw from Johnson at first. The inning didn't end until rookie Lombard, a late-inning replacement in right, misplayed Hawpe's line drive for an error, then threw to Vidro, who threw out Holliday at the plate to -- mercifully -- end the inning, the rally. But by that point, the Nationals were done.


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