By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008
MIAMI, April 19 -- During a 2007 season in which they were frequently overmatched in talent and payroll, the Washington Nationals gained a reputation for annoying opponents. They played .500 baseball for the season's final four months, and they did so because, for the most part, they were energetic, heady, and fundamentally sound.
This year's Nationals were supposed to be better, and perhaps their roster is more talented. But Saturday night in an abhorrent 6-5 loss to the Florida Marlins, they were neither spunky nor smart. Rather, they were disheveled, and even though they came back from a two-run, ninth-inning deficit, they were beaten on Wes Helms's run-scoring single in the bottom of the ninth. Because of that, this year's version is off to a worse start than last year's team.
"They battled," Manager Manny Acta said, but he knows how many misplays in this one-run loss could have been prevented by proper physical execution or, in a couple of cases, solid thinking.
The Nationals' transgressions included three errors, two charged to second baseman Felipe López. They included a Little League base-running gaffe from shortstop Cristian Guzmán, who took off from second base on an infield pop-up with one out. They included the continued struggles of third-place hitter Ryan Zimmerman, who twice failed to score runners from third with less than two outs. And they included some curious plays from right fielder Austin Kearns, who had one catchable ball sail over his head.
"We continue to beat ourselves by giving a lot of extra outs and making some mistakes out there that I know the guys don't want to do it," Acta said, "but it's costing us right now."
It's costing them in the standings. At 5-13, the Nationals have the worst record in baseball, with two wins in their last 15. After 18 games, last year's Nationals, who got off to a horrid 1-8 start, stood at 6-12.
"It'll pass, and we'll start winning," Zimmerman said, "and everything will be fine."
Very little is fine at this point. Where to start? The Nationals might have been buoyed by the return of right-hander Shawn Hill, who is coming off two surgeries at the end of last season and lingering soreness in his right forearm. Saturday, he made his 2008 debut and fairly cruised through the first five innings, allowing only one run in that period on a ball that Dan Uggla drilled over Kearns's head in right, a ball Kearns might have caught.
But when Hill came out for the sixth holding a 3-1 lead, his pitches weren't as crisp. The results: triple for Josh Willingham, single for Mike Jacobs, double for Jorge Cantú. Hill was done.
"You got a 3-1 lead, I'm not going through the heart of the order at that point," Hill said. "I've got to do a better job of maintaining that lead."
When right-hander Jesús Colome came on in relief, all three runners scored, the last on a bizarre play in which López stopped, but couldn't hold on to, a grounder from Florida catcher Mike Rabelo. Thus, comedy ensued. The ball rolled toward first baseman Nick Johnson, who didn't want to remove his foot from the bag. But it never came within Johnson's reach, and Rabelo was safe, the play on which the go-ahead run scored.
That, though, had nothing on Guzmán's blunder. Guzmán was on second and Zimmerman on first with one out in the first when Johnson skied a ball just to the left of third base. Third base coach Tim Tolman had to vacate the coach's box, and was running away from the play.
"By the time I saw him," Tolman said, "it was too late."
Guzmán ran as if there were two outs. Cantú caught the ball. He doubled Guzmán up.
"He told me that since he was at the plate, he had on his mind that there were two outs," Acta said. "Then he went on the bases and the same thing happened. Those are the type of things that we can't afford to be doing, because that was the heart of our lineup right there. Who knows what would have happened after that?"
And who knows what would have happened if the Nationals could have extended the lead they had? Take two at-bats for Zimmerman. The first came in the first inning with no outs and runners on second and third. Zimmerman struck out against Florida right-hander Burke Badenhop, making his third major league start. The Nationals scored just once in the inning. In the sixth, with Washington up 3-1, Zimmerman came to the plate with López on third and one out. He bounced an 0-2 fastball to third base, not enough to score the runner.
Zimmerman is now 1 for 23 with runners in scoring position. He has a solution for how to improve on that. "Not roll over fastballs right down the middle," he said, and laughed. But he knows it's a serious matter. He is supposed to be the team's chief run-producer.
"Just get the job done," he said. "There's no excuses."
The reason Acta is able to say his team battled on an otherwise dismal night is because, with two outs in the ninth, Kearns dropped a two-run single into right field, tying the game at 5. But in a sloppy game -- the Marlins added four errors of their own -- it merely gave the Nationals a chance to make one more misstep.
Right-hander Saúl Rivera walked Uggla, the first man he faced. Uggla advanced to second on a grounder, and after an intentional walk, Helms came through. Analyze any and all of the poor plays from Saturday. But it comes down to one simple thing.
"For us to get out of this funk," Acta said, "we're going to have to start playing better baseball."