A Ninth Inning to Forget

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 24, 2007

Nook Logan played out the ending of last night's game in his head as he stood on second base in the bottom of the ninth inning. The bases were loaded with one out and the Washington Nationals trailed by one run.

Even if Felipe Lopez, the batter at the plate, grounded the ball, say, right back to Cleveland Indians closer Joe Borowski, the pitcher merely would throw home. Awaiting the toss would be catcher Kelly Shoppach, who would tag the plate and attempt to nail Lopez at first. By the time Shoppach's throw reached first baseman Victor Martinez, Logan figured he would be gliding across the plate with the tying run.

Lopez did ground to Borowski, and the closer did fire the ball home. However, Shoppach elected to throw to third instead of first, catching Logan drifting too far off the bag for the final out in the Nationals' 4-3 loss at RFK Stadium.

"I thought [Shoppach] was going to throw to first," Logan said. And if the catcher had, would Logan have scored all the way from second? "Easy."

But even the most assured plans quickly were discarded last night. Manager Manny Acta thought he had a similar case of foresight in the seventh inning. His starting pitcher, Matt Chico, was coming off the mound with a 2-1 lead after a solid performance, and Acta had just the relief combination in mind to finish off the victory: Jesus Colome, Jon Rauch, Chad Cordero.

The trio was effective in sealing a win the night before, providing scoreless relief en route to a 4-1 victory. What was to say they could not do it again?

Colome and Rauch did their part last night; each pitched one inning and neither allowed a run. But Cordero could not do the same.

Taking the mound in the ninth, Cordero allowed back-to-back leadoff singles to Franklin Gutierrez and Casey Blake before serving up a first-pitch, three-run homer to Victor Martinez that landed just over the center field wall.

Like Logan, Acta saw his preconceived plan fall apart. Like Logan, all Acta could do was look forward to the next game.

"I want to be in the same position [Sunday] with a two-run lead and my closer on the mound in the ninth inning," Acta said. Cordero "is human, and he failed today."

Cordero said he tried to get the ball down but was not able to get it down far enough, just as Logan tried to get back to third base before Shoppach's throw arrived but could not get back fast enough. "Whenever you make a mistake, chances are they're going to make you pay," Cordero said, "And that's what happened."

The game went well for the Nationals for eight innings. Brandon Watson brought a low-crouch, weight-back batting stance from Class AAA Columbus, and in his third game since being recalled he went 2 for 3 and scored two runs.

He also popped up a bunt attempt in the ninth inning in an attempt to advance Brian Schneider, who had singled to lead off. "You've got to execute, and I didn't get it done," Watson said. "That hurts more than the two hits."

Aside from giving up a home run to Grady Sizemore in the sixth, Chico pitched well, allowing a one run, four hits and three walks in six-plus innings. He recorded three strikeouts.

The performance easily topped Chico's previous start. Against Detroit last Monday, the southpaw gave up eight runs and nine hits in four innings. Entering last night's start, Chico was 3-5 with a 5.35 ERA.

"I was confident in my stuff tonight," Chico said. "I had a little trouble with my change-up on the outside [of the plate], but for the most part my off-speed stuff worked."

The Nationals chased Indians starter Paul Byrd from the game in the bottom of the seventh. Watson whipped another hit to left-center and advanced to third after a Guzman single.

Left-hander Rafael Perez relieved Byrd, only to throw a wild pitch on his second offering to Lopez. Watson scrambled home to draw a roar of approval from the second-largest home crowd of the season (32,539).

But like Logan's premonition, and Acta's before his, the crowd's cheers came too early on a night when there was no such thing as a full-proof plan.

"Let's not be dissecting the last inning," Acta said. "We had the game heading into the last inning. We'll move on."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company