By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
ATLANTA, June 26 -- It wasn't supposed to be the Washington Nationals' only real chance for an outburst Tuesday night, but as the innings passed by and an Atlanta Braves right-hander named Earl L. "Buddy" Carlyle kept sitting them back down, one opportunity in the first inning grew more and more significant. In that frame, the Nationals strung together three singles. On the last of those, by Dmitri Young, they had one runner thrown out at the plate, another at third.
The thought in the dugout?
"In so many words," said starter Mike Bacsik, " 'Crap.' "
These Nationals, with so many key offensive performers scuffling toward midseason, can't afford such plays, and they couldn't overcome it in what became a 6-2 loss. Carlyle, making his 13th major league start over a nine-season stretch, stymied them over seven innings, allowing just one run. The Nationals had those three hits in the first, two more in the third, but then none till the ninth, and Bacsik allowed a pair of homers to rookie Jarrod Saltalamacchia and a crushing three-run blow to Andruw Jones.
"I lost the game for us tonight," Bacsik said.
He was just one critical element. Such an offensive performance might be expected against Monday's Atlanta starter, Tim Hudson, who like Carlyle gave up one run in seven innings. It might be expected against the man who starts Wednesday's series finale, veteran John Smoltz. But against Carlyle, a man who had given up seven runs in 3 2/3 innings against Boston less than a week earlier and came in with an ERA of 6.11?
"You know in the back of your mind that you need to win this ballgame, because you probably go in there figuring you're not going to beat both" Hudson and Smoltz, said center fielder Ryan Langerhans. "So it puts more of an emphasis on a game like this."
Which puts some emphasis on the Nationals' offense as a whole. Before shortstop Cristian Guzman, an unexpected godsend as a leadoff hitter, went down with what is expected to be a season-ending thumb injury Sunday, the Nationals were already sputtering as a unit. After Tuesday's performance, they are hitting .249 as a team, and only two members of the starting lineup -- Young (.342) and Ronnie Belliard (.295) -- are hitting above .260.
They need someone else to heat up, as Manager Manny Acta said with emphasis, " bad."
"We're not hiding the fact that we're next to last in hitting, last in runs scored, last in home runs," Acta said. "We know that runs are not easy to come by."
Which puts more emphasis on situations like the first inning Tuesday. Felipe Lopez started it with a hard one-out single off Carlyle, then Ryan Zimmerman followed with a bloop single to center, putting runners on first and second. When Young -- who went 2 for 3 to continue a ridiculous tear in which he has hit .436 since May 17 -- followed with his single to left, the Nationals appeared to be ready to pounce on Carlyle.
But Washington third base coach Tim Tolman sent Lopez home, and Braves left fielder Matt Diaz bounced a throw to the plate. Lopez was out, and when catcher Brian McCann fired to nail Zimmerman on a too-close-to-call play at third, the Nationals had not a run or two, but an inning-ending double play.
"I'm always being aggressive," Lopez said, and the Nationals felt they had to force the issue because runs have been so hard to come by. Still, this wasn't Hudson, who has owned the Nationals in three starts this year (0.86 ERA). It wasn't Smoltz, likely headed to the Hall of Fame. It was Buddy Carlyle.
"You're assuming, 'Oh, we're going to get some more off of this guy,' " Acta said.
They did. One run, on Langerhans's double in the third. After that, Carlyle allowed two base runners to reach on errors and another on a walk. Other than that, nothing.
"A bad showing on our part," said right fielder Austin Kearns, who went 0 for 4 and has just 26 RBI this season.
Bacsik felt largely the same about his own outing -- or at least parts of it. He allowed Saltalamacchia's solo homer to lead off the third on a 2-2 curveball, then gave the Braves a 2-1 lead when Saltalamacchia hit the first pitch of the fifth out to left. Still, the game was manageable.
"I was throwing the ball good," Bacsik said. "And in a five-minute span, 10-15 pitches, you lose the game."
Among those pitches: a one-out single by Yunel Escobar, another single by Edgar Renteria. Then, with two outs, he fell behind Jones. Yes, the Braves center fielder entered the game hitting a jaw-dropping .197. But he is still Andruw Jones -- still the man who had hit 14 homers off the Nationals since baseball returned to Washington, more than any other player. And Bacsik, whose fastball tops out in the mid-80s, can't afford to work behind a hitter like that.
Bacsik threw Jones a 3-1 change-up, and as Bacsik said, "He did what he usually does with those pitches," sending it deep to left, turning a one-run game into a 5-1 Atlanta lead.
"I'm going to have a sleepless night tonight," Bacsik said.
If that's the case, then how must the Nationals' hitters feel? They have scored more than four runs just once in their last 12 games.
"I'm sure there's a lot of us in the lineup that feel like we need to do better," Kearns said. "And we do."