By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
CINCINNATI, May 21 -- If someone had walked into Manny Acta's office Monday afternoon and said his Washington Nationals would score four runs in the first inning, build a six-run lead against the Cincinnati Reds in the second, get three near-perfect innings from reliever Winston Abreu, he would have taken it without a single hint of a question.
"That's what makes it so tough," Acta said afterward. "You get to that point, you really want to win the ballgame."
The Nationals, however, did not win, and their 8-7 loss on a two-run, eighth-inning homer from pinch hitter Javier Valentin was jarring on many fronts. They had an opportunity to take the momentum created on a 7-3 homestand directly into this seven-game road trip, and it was squandered because set-up man Jon Rauch isn't, as he put it, "doing my job."
Rauch's eighth inning, which began with the Nationals holding a two-run lead, featured a single from Adam Dunn when Rauch was ahead in the count, a miscommunication on a double off the bat of Scott Hatteberg -- a ball on which center fielder Nook Logan and right fielder Austin Kearns tried unsuccessfully to call each other off -- and a poor 1-2 slider to Valentin, who jacked it deep to right for his first homer of the season.
For the team, the blast was unsettling. "When you're pretty much controlling the game the whole way," Kearns said, "it's tough when someone sneaks one in the back door."
But for Rauch, it was particularly disturbing. After he failed to protect a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning Friday night against Baltimore, he was openly critical of his performance -- saying the team should blame him for what became a loss -- despite the fact that in his previous nine outings he hadn't allowed a run. Now, he has another rough appearance to wonder about.
"Of course I'm going to be down on myself," Rauch said. "I'm not doing my job. It's one of those things where I really don't have an answer for why things are going the way they are, other than maybe me trying too hard and pushing myself a little more than I need to. But somehow I need to figure out a way to get the job done."
That the Nationals would have even been in a position to build such a lead and then blow it seemed unlikely, particularly with Washington nemesis Bronson Arroyo on the mound. Last season, in two starts against the Nationals, Arroyo threw 16 scoreless innings. But Monday, he made the shortest start of his career, driven from the game by that four-run first that featured run-scoring doubles from Ryan Zimmerman (3 for 5, including his fifth homer) and Dmitri Young, and then Kearns's two-run shot in the second.
But the Nationals countered Arroyo with rookie Levale Speigner, a man who is making a pair of adjustments simultaneously. He is learning the big leagues, and he is learning how to start. Had the Nationals' rotation not been decimated by injuries, Monday would have been Shawn Hill's turn, and Hill hadn't given up more than three earned runs in any of his eight appearances this year.
Speigner, though, is in a different situation, and he was pitching in a park that has a reputation for allowing leads to be built, but never keeping them safe. Speigner said he thought about that "a little bit, but it's also in my mind that they got guys like [Ken] Griffey and Dunn, guys that can obviously drive the ball out of any park."
So after a routine first, his outing got ugly. He let the Reds back in the game by giving up a two-run homer to Hatteberg and a solo shot to Griffey, all part of a three-inning, five-run stint.
Yet he was bailed out by Abreu, who would have picked up his first major league win after his three-inning, one-hit performance. "Just tremendous," Acta said.
If only he could say the same about the eighth. In many ways, the key play came on Hatteberg's ball. The outfield defense was shaded toward left, and the Reds first baseman hit it just to the right of straightaway center.
"I was calling it," Kearns said.
"We were both calling it," Logan said.
Neither heard the other.
"I saw him, last minute, corner of my eye," Logan said. "He was still running. I was still going. That's a pretty big guy. I think it could've got ugly, but that cost us the ballgame."
Alas, the double scored just one run, making it 7-6. What cost the Nationals the ballgame was Rauch's misplaced slider to Valentin, a ball that was supposed to be down and away, but instead was in the middle, drilled for the homer that completed one of the Nationals' most difficult losses of the year.