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.
"I'm just missing pitches," Zimmerman said, obviously frustrated at hitting .236, at going an entire week without an RBI. Dmitri Young flew out, Kearns walked and Heilman was replaced by lefty Scott Schoeneweis. With the bases loaded, Church smashed a ball to the right side.
"Hit something," Church said he thought. "Hit a rock. . . . Two feet here, two feet there, it could've cleared the bases."
Instead, Franco snapped it up. And that left the Nationals just one more opportunity to execute the fundamentals. Flores singled to lead off the ninth against Mets closer Billy Wagner, wielding his 97-mph fastball. Pinch hitter Josh Wilson had -- yes, you guessed it -- one job: bunt him over. What did Wilson see?
"Not the ball hit my bat," Wilson said, "which is what everybody should have saw."
He took the first pitch for a strike, fouled off the next, and then Acta removed the bunt sign.
"I'm not striking out any position player bunting," Acta said, so Wilson struck out on his own.
"That's something that I definitely don't take lightly," Wilson said. "That's one of my jobs, to be able to come in and get a bunt down. When I don't get it down, it's unacceptable."
Three little episodes involving one simple, fundamental baseball play. Because the Nationals couldn't pull them off, a zero remained on the board next to their name as the Mets celebrated, departing town with another win that might have been a loss.