Bases-Loaded Wild Pitch In 14th Sinks Nationals

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

NEW YORK, April 17 -- It is not enough for the Washington Nationals to get a superbly pitched game from their starter, because they have a nonexistent offense. It isn't enough to take a one-run lead into the late innings, because their bullpen is out of order. It isn't even enough to count on what has been a solid defense, because when it mattered Thursday night, that, too, failed.

So throw out John Lannan's splendid six-inning, 11-strikeout performance. Toss aside the two-run homer from Nick Johnson, because it was the only offense the Nationals managed. Instead, if a very forgettable Thursday night is remembered at all, it will be for Ronnie Belliard's two-out error in the eighth that led to the tying run, then for Joel Hanrahan's sloppiness in the 14th. Hanrahan's bases-loaded wild pitch allowed Damion Easley to score the run that delivered a 3-2 victory for the New York Mets, perhaps the Nationals' most brutal loss of the season.

So a few things to consider, none of them particularly uplifting. The Mets swept the Nationals, who will now travel to Florida to face the first-place Marlins, by whom they were swept last week. Washington has but one win in its last 13 games.

Not to mention that the Nationals' offense is but a rumor, managing six hits against a journeyman's journeyman named Nelson Figueroa -- whose recent stops include the independent Atlantic League and the Mexican League -- and six Mets' relievers over 4 hours 45 minutes. "That's not going to get it done," said Manager Manny Acta, whose club is now hitting .219, the worst average in the majors.

Thus, the goats who prevented Lannan from getting his first win of the season were many. With two outs in the eighth and the Nationals leading 2-1, second baseman Belliard charged Ryan Church's grounder. He held his glove out to his left, and booted the ball. Instead of Church becoming the third out, he became the beginning of the Mets' rally.

"That's what we're doing," Acta said. "If you're going to win 2-1 against the Mets, you pretty much have to play perfect baseball -- and we didn't."

Acta called for right-hander Luis Ayala to face Mets third baseman David Wright. Ayala, though, missed on a 3-2 pitch, walking Wright. With closer Chad Cordero unfit to close games -- at least temporarily, given his mysteriously low velocity on his fastball -- Acta called for Jon Rauch to face the left-handed hitting Carlos Delgado, even in the eighth inning, even with the lefty Ray King still available.

"That's closer's territory," Acta said, and Delgado's record against the two was something of an argument for Rauch. Delgado was 3 for 9 with a double off Rauch, 2 for 3 with a double and a triple against King.

Rauch got Delgado in an 0-2 hole on a curveball and a slider, then went to 2-2. There, Rauch came with his first fastball. Delgado turned the 94-mph offering around into right field, the single that scored Church to tie it up.

That took a win away from Lannan during his homecoming and an unexpectedly impressive performance. For more than a week, even after he suffered through a sloppy four-inning outing in a loss to Atlanta, Lannan -- who grew up in Long Beach, N.Y. -- looked forward to pitching here. He spent Tuesday night at his parents' home, "just to make them happy," he said. And he couldn't estimate how many friends and family showed up. All he knew: He left tickets for his mother, his father and his grandmother. Whoever else came was just fine.

"I heard some people cheering when I was warming up," Lannan said.

If Lannan's family cheered boisterously for their boy, they couldn't be heard above the din of the Shea crowd, which was 47,785 strong on what started as a warm April evening. Early on, there was no telling how long Lannan might last. His first two hitters: a single to José Reyes and a run-scoring double to Church, a ball that bounced off the glove of left fielder Wily Mo Peña. And that was it.

In his nine career major league starts, Lannan had never struck out more than four. With two outs in the second, he had struck out four in a row. After Church's double, Lannan retired 16 straight Mets, using an unusually effective slider to accompany his curveball.

"It's a bummer," Acta said, "because the kid had a tremendous outing."

By the time Hanrahan entered in the 12th, though, Lannan was an afterthought. The converted starter allowed two walks in the 13th, but worked out of it. But when Easley led off the 14th with a single, the Nationals were just about done.

Reyes, trying to sacrifice, popped up a bunt back to the mound, and Hanrahan caught it. But he then allowed Easley to advance to second on his first wild pitch. He struck out Church. Two down. But he then made a ghastly error. Shortstop Cristian Guzmán tried to sneak behind Easley for a pickoff play. Hanrahan was gripping a slider. "I should've just made the move," he said, "and not made the throw."

He threw, and the ball went into left field. That led to intentional walks to Wright and Delgado, loading the bases. And it brought up Brian Schneider, the Nationals' former catcher, as a pinch hitter with a chance to beat his old team.

Hanrahan didn't even afford Schneider the opportunity. His first pitch, a slider, traveled "about 48 feet," Hanrahan said. Easley scored easily.

"Just trying to throw it too hard," Hanrahan said, adding that "one pitch blows the game for us." That, of course, was not true. Over nearly five hours, plenty of Nationals chipped in to blow this one.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company