Another Day, Same Mistakes in Nationals Loss to Mets

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009

NEW YORK, April 25 -- When the Washington Nationals attempted to play baseball for the 16th time this season, they refuted the notion that practice makes perfect. Perhaps the Nationals avoided the sloppiest game in recent team history, but as a consolation prize, they played the sloppiest first three innings. Their starting pitcher couldn't throw strikes. The first baseman threw wide to third. Their right fielder threw low to a cut-off man. Their center fielder, sunglasses propped atop his hat brim, made an error when he lost a ball in the sun.

The complete regression of fundamental baseball culminated in Washington's 8-2 loss against the Mets on Saturday at Citi Field. Relying on all the usual deficiencies -- defensive gaffes, unearned runs -- the Nationals dropped to 3-13, the badge of a team that talks a lot about eliminating its problems and gives no sign of actually doing so.

By the end of the first inning, the Nationals had already turned in their most emblematic miscue of the season. It led directly to three unearned runs, unnerved starter Daniel Cabrera, and placed Washington in a hole from which it couldn't escape. With two on and two out in the bottom of the first, New York's David Wright skied a ball to center fielder Elijah Dukes. In afternoon games like this one, balls traveling to that part of the stadium pass right through the sun's glare. Equipped with shades, Dukes had a solution. Unfortunately, that solution wasn't covering his eyes at the time he needed it.

The ball never even touched his mitt. Dukes tried to camp under it, then watched it plummet about a foot behind him. The error -- Washington's 16th of the season -- continued a long spell of treacherous outfield play. It also continued the inning. Two scored. Wright, on second, created a third run when Ryan Church singled him in.

"That first error just took the air out of us," Manager Manny Acta said. "It was just, we were out of the inning right there and it cost us three."

Asked later to elaborate on what happened with Dukes's error, Acta said: "Go ask him. He's out there [in the clubhouse]."

Dukes declined comment, saying, "This is not the time to be asking me about some [expletive] like that."

By the end of the third inning, the Nationals were already down 5-0, and the local television broadcast was already showing a video montage of Washington bloopers from this series. In all, the Nationals yielded five unearned runs on Saturday, running their season total to 13, most in the National League. Four of Cabrera's five runs were unearned, but that's not to suggest he didn't richly deserve blame for aesthetic transgressions. Especially after the Dukes error, when Cabrera stopped throwing strikes.

Against eight of the first 14 hitters he faced, and against 10 of 19 overall, Cabrera threw at least three balls. He walked four of those hitters. Several other times when behind in the count, Cabrera allowed hard hits when he was forced to bring pitches across the plate. Luis Castillo, who scored New York's run in the second, reached with a single that came on a 3-2 pitch. The Carlos Beltrán single that drove Castillo home came on a 3-1 pitch. Though ensuing wildness that inning led to no more runs, Cabrera then walked Carlos Delgado on four pitches and worked the count full against Wright. Fittingly, Cabrera's afternoon ended with a walk in the third inning. José Reyes trotted to first, and Acta trotted to the mound.

"I pitched bad, very bad," said Cabrera, who lasted 2 1/3 innings. "Because when stuff happens bad I'm supposed to pick up my team."

"He didn't throw enough strikes obviously," Acta said. "With a ballclub like [New York's] that has such a good lineup, speed, if you put guys on, the way we're playing defense, every time a guy commits an error it's really going to cost you."

For the rest of the day, the Nationals failed to dent the deficit. Sinkerballer Mike Pelfrey had his best start of the year, going 5 2/3 , allowing six hits and two runs. The Nationals went quietly against the New York relievers, too, unable to score once Pelfrey departed.

"I think everyone is out there playing hard, it's just we're making mistakes that obviously a big league team should not make," said Adam Dunn, who went 1 for 3 with a walk. "But we're making them, and that is what's costing us games. It's the same story every single day, it seems like. We do something that leads to them scoring a few runs, and we're not able to capitalize when we get opportunities. And we're going to have to find a way to turn it around. I don't know what it is, but we'll have to find a way."

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