By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007
Thinking there were two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, Ryan Zimmerman took off from second base as soon as the ball connected with Austin Kearns's bat. The Washington Nationals were down by two runs and Ronnie Belliard already was on third. Representing the tying run on a night when runs were precious commodities, Zimmerman knew he could make it home, assuming the ball fell safely.
The ball, though, was caught by Colorado Rockies second baseman Kazuo Matsui. The play would not have been noteworthy but for the fact there was only one out, not two. Matsui fired the ball to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, and Zimmerman was doubled off to end the inning.
"It was a bad mistake," Zimmerman said. "You can't do anything about it now, but you can't let that stuff happen."
The Nationals let "that stuff" happen too often last night and consequently fell to the Rockies, 3-1.
Zimmerman's was the fourth Nationals miscue of the game, a trend the team could not afford with a spot starter on the mound and its best hitter on the bench most of the night with an injury. Washington committed three errors and managed just four hits off Colorado starter Aaron Cook.
Nationals Manager Manny Acta described Cook's performance as "nasty," citing the right-hander's combination of a power sinker and a sharp slider as reasons for his success against his team. Zimmerman could not have agreed more with his manager's assessment.
Cook's sinker "is about as heavy as it gets," said Zimmerman, who drove in the Nationals' lone run. "He's one of those guys where you have to battle and try to scrape one or two [runs] across."
Cook allowed no runs in seven innings of work, his first scoreless outing since April 24. The pitching effort by a quintet of Nationals was nearly as effective, but it suffered mistakes the Rockies went without.
Billy Traber took the mound for the Nationals in his first major league start since Sept. 11 at Arizona, but through two innings he appeared as if he had been in the rotation all along. It took the southpaw just 17 pitches to record the first six outs.
But after walking Cook on four consecutive pitches to lead off the third, Traber briefly faltered and allowed the Rockies all the runs they would need. Willy Taveras followed with a bunt single and Matsui did the same, though he was safe at first only after Traber's throw pulled Belliard off the bag.
"I was trying to throw to first, rather than right field," Traber said. "I wouldn't call it nickel-and-diming; I just made my own mess."
Matt Holliday then scored Cook with a groundout to shortstop, getting some measure of revenge against Traber after being hit on the left kneecap by a pitch in the first. A Todd Helton sacrifice fly drove in another run for the Rockies.
Starting in place of Jason Simontacchi, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list yesterday with right elbow tendinitis, Traber lasted four innings, allowing one earned run on three hits in 56 pitches. Acta said he elected to go with Traber because the left-hander had experience starting and was the member of the bullpen who had been stretched out the most this season. In eight starts last season, Traber went 3-3 with a 7.75 ERA.
Prior to last night, Traber typically filled the long-relief role and also was used to pitch to left-handers. He had compiled a 2-0 record with a 4.50 ERA in 23 games since being called up May 16 from Class AAA Columbus.
In addition to Traber's miscue in the third, Belliard and catcher Brian Schneider also committed errors when they had trouble hitting their targets. Neither error led to Colorado runs, but both unnecessarily prolonged innings for Nationals pitchers unaccustomed to long outings. Chris Schroeder took over for Traber and provided 2 1/3 innings of two-hit, one-run relief.
Such misplays only partially explain why the Nationals, at 40-56, enter the final weeks before the trade deadline as a seller and not as a buyer. One player discussed in the trade rumors is all-star Dmitri Young. The first baseman leads the National League with a .340 batting average and likely is the Nationals player who would provide the highest-caliber return in a swap.
Suspicions of a trade were heightened when Young was scratched from the starting lineup with a bruised left heel. General Manager Jim Bowden said the injury was minor and that Young could play if necessary.
In the bottom of the eighth, with the Nationals trailing by two with two men on, the crowd of 27,581 knew who it wanted to bat in the pitcher's slot of the order and rose to its feet when Young came on to pinch-hit. Though he grounded out to Helton, Young's importance to his team -- and his popularity with the fans -- had been made clear.
Before the game, Acta was asked if he concerns himself with the possibilities a trade might bring his club more than wins and losses. "I could care less who's here," Acta said. "I try to win every day with whatever I have."
After the end of another defeat, Acta carried a different tune, though not one that was any less optimistic.
"We've had countless nights like tonight, so one more night is not going to make me feel bad," he said. "We've got to keep working and hope that things are going to change."