Nats Drop The Ball
After Blunder in 9th, Washington Falls in 14: Phillies 7, Nationals 5

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007

PHILADELPHIA, July 25 -- The final blow in a 4-hour 52-minute affair Wednesday night came off the bat of slugging Philadelphia first baseman Ryan Howard, a two-run homer that landed in the right field bleachers and ended the Phillies' 7-5 victory over the Washington Nationals in the bottom of the 14th.

But in the quiet of the visitors' clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park, a sellout crowd long since departed, the competitiveness and intriguing absurdity of the game seemed frivolous to the Nationals. Yes, they scraped together a three-run rally in the top of the ninth to thrust themselves into a game they might have lost quietly. Sure, they got 8 1/3 innings without an earned run allowed from an increasingly stout relief corps.

Yet there was one lingering thought.

"This is the big leagues," Manager Manny Acta said. "A guy's not supposed to score on a fly ball that somebody drops."

Whittle down the events of the ninth inning, and that's what's left at the core. The Nationals' comeback in the ninth -- featuring pinch-hit, RBI doubles from veteran Tony Batista and rookie Jesus Flores for a 5-4 advantage -- had left a crowd of 44,931 silent but for a few frustrated murmurs. Closer Chad Cordero, who had saved each of his seven opportunities since June 24, retired the first two men he faced.

"It was an easy 1-2-3 save," Acta said.

Then, disaster. With the count 0-2 on Phillies leadoff man Jimmy Rollins, Cordero made what might have been the final pitch of the night. Rollins swung, lofting a ball toward the gap in left-center field.

"I knew someone was going to get it," catcher Brian Schneider said.

But who? Left fielder Ryan Church charged toward center and back toward the wall. Center fielder Ryan Langerhans charged toward left, also angling back.

"I was calling it the whole way," Langerhans said.

"I could barely hear him," Church said, and he, too, had a shot at it.

As the two men arrived at the wall and the ball, Rollins continued scooting around the bases. Someone, anyone, had to catch it, and the game would be over. Yet out of the corner of their eyes, each saw the other.

"I guess I just braced myself for a collision and didn't extend my arm long enough to catch the ball," Langerhans said.

As Langerhans pulled back, narrowly avoiding a violent meeting with his teammate, the ball actually hit Church's glove. He couldn't hold on.

"I lost the game," Church said.

Not at that point. The ball then squirted toward an angled wall in center, and Church tracked it down. It briefly stuck under some padding on the fence, but he fished it out. Knowing the speedy Rollins was on the move, he turned and flung it toward shortstop Felipe Lopez, the cut-off man.

By that point, Rollins was pulling into third with what looked to be a triple. Cordero was still in position to retire the next hitter, Shane Victorino, and the Nationals would win.

But Church's throw to Lopez was slightly off-line. Lopez then failed to corral it. Rollins, ever alert, didn't hesitate. He headed home, and Schneider couldn't handle Lopez's one-hopper to the plate. Rollins barreled in, and the crowd exploded. The play was ruled a triple and an error on Church for his relay throw, so the run against Cordero was unearned. It hardly mattered, because the Phillies had tied the game.

"We got to make 27 outs and catch the ball, and we couldn't catch that fly ball," Acta said. "We couldn't hit the cut-off man. We couldn't catch a throw or keep it close, and we couldn't throw the runner out. About five things [went] wrong on one play, and it ended up costing us."

Thus, they played on, something these teams have a knack for doing. In the past two seasons, the Nationals and Phillies have played 14 innings twice to go along with other games of 13, 12 and 10 innings -- and that doesn't count the ridiculous nine-inning affair last September that was delayed until 11:32 p.m. by rain and finished at 2:07 in the morning.

"It's very exhausting," Schneider said.

The teams used every one of their bench players to go along with every single available reliever, 16 pitchers and 41 players in all. By the time the Nationals' final pitcher, Chris Booker, entered for the 14th, starter Mike Bacsik made his way to the bullpen -- just in case.

Bacsik's services, however, weren't necessary. Booker began the 14th by walking Chase Utley, the fifth consecutive inning in which the Phillies' leadoff batter reached base. This time, the Nationals couldn't escape. Howard, the reigning National League MVP, sent a 2-2 pitch high into the air, out toward right.

Right fielder Austin Kearns backed up onto the warning track, to no avail. He started to jog back toward the dugout even before the ball settled into the seats. The Nationals had made a comeback, but they ended up with a discouraging loss.

"We battled back, scratched back, and we had a chance to get in there and steal the 'W' the way we did," Church said. "And that's why I'm so [ticked] off. It's my fault. When it comes down to it, I lost the game."

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