Costly Mistakes Too Much for Nats to Overcome

Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman starts a first-inning double play by snagging a line drive by the Tigers' Placido Polanco and doubling up Curtis Granderson at first base.
Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman starts a first-inning double play by snagging a line drive by the Tigers' Placido Polanco and doubling up Curtis Granderson at first base. (Photos By Haraz N. Ghanbari -- Associated Press)

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The highlights will show the Washington Nationals' gallant comeback in the ninth inning, an onslaught that featured Cristian Guzman's two-run triple, Felipe Lopez's run-scoring single and a Detroit Tigers lead that at one point had been eight runs but, with RFK Stadium shaking a bit, was whittled all the way to one.

In the end, that same reel of highlights will show Tigers closer Todd Jones retiring, with the tying run in scoring position, Dmitri Young on a strikeout, Austin Kearns on a fielder's choice and pinch hitter Ronnie Belliard on a grounder to short, the final out in a harrowing 9-8 loss for the Nationals that left them able to, legitimately, talk about how they don't seem to lay down for anyone.

"It's always, 'We can do it,' " Manager Manny Acta said of his team's attitude when it gathered in the dugout for the bottom of the ninth trailing by four runs. "That's why they are where they're at. They've earned the respect of a lot of teams because of that. These guys, they haven't rolled over once yet."

But Acta and his team left RFK on a sweltering night knowing that such a tremendous comeback should not have been necessary. Baseball talk is littered with cliches that crop up at any point in a season. Last night, the Nationals re-learned a lesson they already know, that every out is valuable and every single play -- even in what appears to be a blowout -- can matter by the time the showers are on and the highlights are rolling.

The list of transgressions from last night include a pair of misplays in the outfield -- the first from center fielder Nook Logan, the second from left fielder Ryan Church. They include a too-close-to-call play at the plate in which Detroit shortstop Carlos Guillen -- who went 3 for 4 with a homer and three RBI -- was called safe on a sacrifice fly. In Acta's mind, though, the play shouldn't have been that close, because Church should have set himself up to make a better throw to catcher Brian Schneider, who had to range well to his right to run it down. Offensively, the Nationals had a runner on third with less than two out in the second and failed to score.

Tiny moments that, as Acta said, "don't show up on the scoreboard" and will be overshadowed by the comeback. But each was meaningful. And each, had it gone the other way, might have changed the outcome.

"Every little thing," Schneider said. "If anything, it teaches everybody a lesson. You look at that last situation, last inning, we had a chance to win the ballgame, Ronnie Belliard, yada yada yada. But that's not what the game comes down to. The game starts in the very first inning, and we had chances to score, we had other things going on. That's why not one play decides a ballgame."

One pitcher, however, nearly did. Nationals left-hander Matt Chico had posted a 2.74 ERA in his last four starts and had adjusted to his rookie season and inheriting the role as an injury-plagued staff's workhorse. But Detroit's stout lineup hammered Chico for eight runs in four-plus innings, his worst outing in the majors.

"It wasn't his night," Schneider said, and Chico blamed an inability to locate his breaking pitches.

Included in building a 9-1 deficit, though, were some of those plays that had Acta thinking afterward. With two men on in the second, Marcus Thames hit a bloop off the end of his bat to shallow right-center. Logan inexplicably broke back to the wall.

"I just froze," Logan said, and the ball fell for an RBI single. It set up the sacrifice fly on which Church made, as he said, "just a bad throw."

In the fifth, the inning the Tigers blew it open, Church raced to try to catch a high fly hit by Curtis Granderson. "Out of control," was how Church described himself when he arrived near the wall. He dropped it in foul ground, Granderson ended up walking, and the Tigers' six-run fifth had life.

"You realize how important every little thing is," right fielder Austin Kearns said.

Particularly the way it ended. The Nationals got four in the sixth to chase Detroit starter Mike Maroth and close to 9-5. Even in that inning, they had the bases loaded with nobody out and scored just one more run.

And in the ninth, when Jones came in, they hammered him from the start. Guzman's triple made it 9-7, Lopez's single 9-8, and there was still nobody out. "It gets exciting," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who singled to extend the rally.

The big at-bat, though, was likely Young's. The former Tiger has been as hot as any hitter in baseball, and he already had two hits. He fouled off four pitches from Jones, but the fifth one got by him for strike three.

Kearns was next, and he hit the first pitch to the right side, which first baseman Sean Casey turned into a force on Zimmerman at second.

So it came to Belliard. "I got good wood on it," he said, but he hit it at Guillen in the hole. It was the last little play on a night filled with them, punctuated by a comeback that fell short -- but might not have been necessary with better baseball early on.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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