Less-Than-Perfect Nats Lose Again

Carlos Beltran homers off one of Jason Bergmann's rare pitching mistakes.
Carlos Beltran homers off one of Jason Bergmann's rare pitching mistakes. (By Preston Keres -- The Washigton Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 2007

Let the headlines and the highlights be reserved for New York Mets right-hander John Maine, who continued a remarkable start to his season, and for Carlos Beltran, the center fielder who clubbed the only hit of consequence in the Mets' 1-0 victory over the Washington Nationals yesterday at sun-splashed RFK Stadium.

Save room, too, for Nationals right-hander Jason Bergmann, who continued his own personal renaissance with seven brilliant innings, just two hits and three walks allowed. But Bergmann, who now owns a 1.78 ERA over his past four starts, still has not a single win to show for it. Yesterday, as well as he threw in an 88-pitch outing, he knew he was partly responsible for the Nationals' second straight gut-wrenching loss to the Mets.

"I didn't get a bunt down," Bergmann said. "That's part of pitching."

A less-flashy part of his job description, to be sure. Yet in each opportunity the Nationals had to execute the simplest of bunt plays, they could not do it, a huge factor in a game determined by such a close margin. The Mets needed just that one, tiny Bergmann mistake -- a misplaced, 0-1 fastball to Beltran in the sixth -- to undo a scoreless tie. The Nationals, because they could not seize on even the smallest mistakes from Maine or two relievers, were shut out for the second time this season.

"We keep stressing that we have to play close to perfect baseball in situations like that," Manager Manny Acta said. "How many times are we going to beat the Mets 2-1 or 1-0 or something? You do have to get the bunt down and make the plays when we have to."

Start with Bergmann's failure. Maine (4-0, 1.35 ERA) walked Chris Snelling to begin the bottom of the third, and with Bergmann up, his job was simple: bunt him over. Bergmann couldn't. He fouled off the first two pitches, took a ball, then fouled off the fourth, a strikeout.

"If I got the bunt down, we might have gotten two runs," Bergmann said. "That's my own error."

The Nationals eventually put runners on first and second, but third baseman Ryan Zimmerman -- who went 0 for 4 with a pair of strikeouts -- swung at the first pitch he saw, a fastball that was "right there," according to Zimmerman, and popped out in foul ground to the catcher, the start of an 0-for-8 day for Washington hitters with runners in scoring position.

The next bunt play, though, was more costly. In the seventh, Maine allowed a leadoff double to Austin Kearns, then walked Ryan Church. Rookie catcher Jesus Flores had the same job: bunt them over, a move that would have put the tying run on third, the lead run on second. As Maine wound up, Kearns had a bad feeling. Mets first baseman Julio Franco sniffed out the play.

"Before the pitch was even thrown," Kearns said, "Franco looked like he was halfway down the line."

In such an instance, Acta said, a veteran player might pull the bat back, hoping to get Franco wondering about what the strategy would be. But Flores is 22, just finishing his first month in the majors. He tapped the ball, Franco pounced on it and instantly threw to third, easily forcing out Kearns. Maine then struck out Snelling and pinch hitter Robert Fick -- getting the benefit of a generous strike zone from home plate umpire Tony Randazzo to battle back from a 3-0 count on the latter -- to end the inning.

The one instance when the Nationals didn't need a bunt came in the eighth against Mets reliever Aaron Heilman. Zimmerman, the man who is supposed to drive in runs for this team, came up with no one out and runners on first and second. He swung at and missed a 1-2, off-speed pitch from Heilman.

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