Nationals' Best Is Not Good Enough

Jesus Flores, Jeff Kent
Washington catcher Jesus Flores can't apply a tag to Jeff Kent as he slides in safely to score the winning run for Los Angeles. (Reed Saxon - AP)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2007

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 29 -- This had to, just had to, come at the end of a 10-game road trip that started with promise but fizzled into disappointment. It wasn't enough that the Washington Nationals lost, 10-9, to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday afternoon. But to turn the screw a little more, why not throw in blown leads of four and five runs? Why not include another key error from shortstop Felipe Lopez? Why not have it last till the 12th inning, making that cross-country flight seem to last days?

"Hey," Manager Manny Acta said afterward, "when you're going bad, you're going bad."

And the Nationals are, officially, going bad. They were swept by the Dodgers in three one-run games and now have lost six in a row, their longest skid since they dropped eight straight in May. This one came down to the bottom of the 12th, when Los Angeles third baseman Shea Hillenbrand lofted a fly ball to right, one just deep enough that lead-footed Jeff Kent was able to give it a shot from third. The throw from right fielder Austin Kearns was slightly up the first base line, Jesus Flores's sweeping tag was a fraction too late and the Nationals all but dragged themselves off the field and to the clubhouse.

All this on a day when the Nationals had their de facto ace, right-hander Shawn Hill, opposing Los Angeles's Brad Penny, a contender for the National League's Cy Young Award. Instead of a crisp pitcher's duel, the 41,913 at Dodger Stadium endured a 4-hour, 5-minute clinic in how to give away a game.

"We give eight runs to our best pitcher, and we still can't win the ballgame," Acta said. "Our strength, basically, has been our defense and our bullpen, and it's crumbled this road trip."

Hill and Penny had combined for a 2.56 ERA. Only once in his 11 starts had Hill allowed more than two earned runs. Only three times in 27 starts had Penny allowed more than three earned runs. With Acta resting several regulars, the Nationals fielded a lineup whose sixth-, seventh- and eighth-place hitters -- D'Angelo Jimenez, Robert Fick and Jesus Flores -- were hitting .202 with three homers and 23 RBI combined.

So the buzz in the clubhouse beforehand concerned the possibility of a quick game, a victory and a joyous overnight flight. Then the Nationals pounced on Penny for four runs in the second, using RBI singles from Fick and Flores and a two-run single from center fielder Nook Logan. By the end of the fifth, they had driven Penny out and taken a 6-3 lead.

When Fick hit his first homer of the year and Logan added another run-scoring single in the sixth off reliever Mark Hendrickson, all Hill had to do was baby an 8-3 advantage for two more innings. He couldn't do it.

"You get spotted a 4-0 lead, and then get spotted a five-run lead going into the sixth -- when by pitch count I know I got one, maybe two more [innings] -- I got to close the door," Hill said. "And what I did, it was completely unacceptable."

What he did was get one out in the sixth and fail to retire another hitter. Kent started things with a double, Luis Gonzalez followed by drawing Hill's only walk. And when Russell Martin hit a bouncer to Lopez at shortstop, where he had been shaky all series, the Dodgers had some hope.

Lopez charged the ball and likely would have been able to get only one out. But he couldn't come up with it, and the bases were loaded. His 15th error of the season was a key reason the Nationals lost Tuesday night. His 16th error played a significant role in the Dodgers' comeback Wednesday.

"That just means that I'm human," he said. "Because I'm working. It's just things that happen."

Lopez, too, had a pair of plays earlier in the series that were scored hits but, both he and Acta felt, were plays he could have made. Asked if he was unsure of himself, Lopez dismissed the question and ended the interview.

That just led to another key defensive sequence. With the bases loaded, Hill threw Dodgers first baseman James Loney a fastball. Loney hit it hard on two hops toward first, where it somehow eluded Fick.

"I went to go this way," Fick said, leaning to his right, "and it hit something and went this way," and he leaned back to his left. It ended up down the right field line, a three-run double that made it 8-6. Hill exited, Luis Ayala entered, and Hillenbrand followed with a two-run, game-tying homer on an 0-2 count. Goodbye, lead.

"That's something that you just can't let happen again," Hill said. "Period."

Eventually, they got to the 12th. After Fick grounded into an inning-ending double play with runners on first and third with one out, Kent opened with a single off Washington reliever Saul Rivera. With one out, Martin doubled him to third. After an intentional walk, Hillenbrand lofted the ball toward Kearns.

"I had a shot," he said, but not a good enough one. Kent slid in safely, and the losing streak was six.

Afterward, Acta mulled how to handle the situation. He will meet with his team, he said, before a homestand begins Friday. In the immediate aftermath, no one felt like talking anyway.

"It's been a very long day, and a very long road trip," Acta said, "and I think my words are just going to go up in the air if I start talking right now."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company