Nats' Winning Streak Is Halted

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2007

ST. LOUIS, May 26 -- The rain was coming, the Washington Nationals trailed by four runs, and a red-clad crowd was ready to head out of Busch Stadium and trickle into the night, celebrating a victory for their St. Louis Cardinals. With one out, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman checked his swing at a 2-2 pitch from Cardinals right-hander Ryan Franklin.

Behind the plate, umpire Charlie Reliford rang up Zimmerman on strikes, and the Cardinals moved within one out of the win. But immediately, Washington Manager Manny Acta started yelling from the dugout. His team might go down -- and it eventually did, an 8-6 loss that wasn't final until after a rain delay that came with two outs in the ninth -- but it would go down kicking, because the Nationals came in with a four-game winning streak, playing their best baseball of the year.

"That was different," Zimmerman said of the circumstances, and indeed it was. The play with Zimmerman, along with the delay -- 1 hour 41 minutes, all so they could play four minutes to get the final out -- encapsulated a bizarre night, one in which the Nationals trailed 8-1 and starter Levale Speigner put his job in jeopardy.

But after Zimmerman was called out on a pitch the Nationals felt was well outside, Washington began a rally in what was an 8-4 game. When Ryan Church followed Zimmerman's strikeout with a two-out double, Acta glared at Reliford as the rain fell harder.

Asked if he felt the umpiring crew was trying to move the game along, to get the ninth inning in, Acta said: "I have no comment. I'm not here to evaluate umpires."

Asked what he said to Reliford following Zimmerman's at-bat, Acta said: "I was just yelling, arguing about pitches. And he was yelling back to me. Normal stuff that happens in a game."

Yet Acta, in his first year managing in the majors, has been in precious few arguments with umpires. He liked the way the Nationals hadn't "rolled over," as he put it, when Speigner put them in an 8-1 hole, and he figured they might do something with the heart of the order up in the ninth.

"He was upset about it," Zimmerman said. "I think he thought it was a ball, too. But he was just sticking up for his players. We fought back. We were in the game. And it was starting to rain pretty hard."

When Austin Kearns followed with a bloop double through the downpour to right, Church scored to make it 8-5, and the game was extended further. That led St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa -- who rarely has met a situation in which he couldn't find a reason to make a pitching change -- to bring on closer Jason Isringhausen to face Dmitri Young.

Young, naturally, followed with an RBI single to center that made it 8-6. That was enough for Reliford and his crew. With the infield in danger of turning into swampland, they called for the grounds crew. The Nationals, with rookie catcher Jesus Flores coming to the plate as the tying run, headed to the clubhouse to stew about it.

"We were hanging out," Kearns said. "Everybody was positive. We're all thinking Flo's going to hit his first homer. . . . We were anxious to get back out there."

It did, though, provide some time to reflect, and Acta appears ready to do so about Speigner. The 26-year-old rookie is in the rotation only because of injuries to four starting pitchers. A Rule 5 pick -- meaning he must be kept on the major league roster the entire season or else be offered back to his former club, Minnesota -- he was supposed to feel his way into the majors by pitching in blowouts. He is now in a position to which he is ill-suited. He allowed a pair of two-out, run-scoring hits to St. Louis center fielder Jim Edmonds in the first three innings, then imploded with a five-run fourth.

"Obviously it wasn't a very good outing," Acta said. "It puts a lot of stress on our bullpen. We have five days. We're going to have to evaluate the situation and see what the alternative would be."

Speigner, too, seemed at a loss. Asked what his future might be, he said, "I don't have a clue."

For his part, Acta said he didn't see lefty Billy Traber -- who relieved Speigner and allowed Scott Rolen's two-run double and a bases-loaded walk -- as an alternative. But it seemed clear a change was possible, if not probable.

Either way, Acta's boys fought back. Since a 9-3 setback April 25 at Philadelphia, Washington hasn't lost a game by more than four runs, and 10 of their 14 defeats since then have been by one or two runs. Saturday was no different, what with two runs in the sixth and another in the eighth to pull within four.

And then, the ninth. When play resumed, Flores worked the count full, then fouled off two pitches against Isringhausen. But on the eighth pitch of the at-bat, he lofted a pop-up, and the game ended after one bad pitching performance, one stout comeback, one long rain delay -- and one called third strike that the Nationals wondered about afterward.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company