By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 21, 2008
MIAMI, April 20 -- Lastings Milledge looked into the South Florida sky Sunday afternoon. Somewhere up there, a baseball had reached the top of its arc and was headed back to earth. Milledge, patrolling center field for the Washington Nationals, held his glove above his eyes, looking for shade. And while he stood there, the ball landed to his left with a thud, an easy out turned into a double, a rally-killer transformed into a rally-starter.
The larger thud heard here over the weekend was the sound of the Nationals bottoming out, or so they can only hope. They lost another winnable game Sunday afternoon, this one 6-1 to the Florida Marlins, because Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramírez broke a tie with a solo homer in the seventh, then capped his performance with a two-run shot in the eighth.
In the midst of all this, the Nationals debuted a couple of new acts to their developing vaudeville show, not the least of which was Milledge's where-could-it-be fly ball in the eighth. But even that was upstaged later in that same inning. In a 2-1 game with the bases loaded and Ramírez at the plate, reliever Saúl Rivera uncorked an 0-1 pitch to the backstop. Not one, but two runs scored on the play, and Florida was left with its fifth victory in six tries over Washington.
"We're just playing losing baseball right now," said Johnny Estrada, the catcher who couldn't corral Rivera's wild pitch. "That's the bottom line."
Thus, the worst team in the majors heads to Atlanta for a two-game series in which the opposing pitchers will be right-handers Tim Hudson and John Smoltz, not exactly the remedy for a team that has lost 14 of its past 16. Over perhaps the first half of that stretch, the Nationals were competitive. Recently, including throughout this 1-5 road trip, they have contributed to their own demise.
"Just got in the sun," Milledge said of Cody Ross's eighth-inning fly ball, the one that fell for a double. "That's it. Got in the sun."
To Manager Manny Acta, whose mantra of "preach and teach" has been tested this month, there is more to it than that, just as there have been more to the myriad mistakes the Nationals have made on this trip.
"He had glasses and he had his glove," Acta said. "He's going to learn some of those things, even up here. We said it all along: He's got a lot of things to learn. And that's probably another one."
During a 9-25 start last season, Acta showed an uncanny ability to remain upbeat in even the most dire circumstances. Though Milledge, 23, is one key addition to this year's club, the manager is dealing with many of the same characters and getting the same results.
Sunday, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman went 0 for 4 with his first error of the season, a wild first-inning throw that led to the only run off left-hander Odalis Pérez. Left fielder Wily Mo Peña, who Saturday night failed to immediately run on a pop-up eventually caught in fair territory, appeared to go after a line drive by Jorge Cantú with questionable effort. The list of infractions is growing daily.
Acta said he cannot and will not change his positive attitude, will not stray from that "preach and teach" approach.
"You never stop," he said. "You can't stop. If you talk to some of the old-timers, baseball teachers, they'll tell you that you tell guys things a thousand times, and then you turn the clicker off and start all over again, and start counting from one again. That's the way it is."
With the score tied 1-1 in the seventh -- Pérez was matched by Marlins lefty Scott Olsen, who allowed only Austin Kearns's solo homer through his seven innings -- Ramírez got a sinking fastball from reliever Luis Ayala and drilled it to center, where it cleared the fence just to the left of the 434-foot mark.
"You never expect center field," Ramírez said.
With Ramírez, though, all seems possible. "He's special," Acta said.
In the top of the eighth, the Nationals had their chance to tie it when Aaron Boone led off with a double and moved to third on Estrada's grounder. When Acta pinch hit the left-hand-hitting Nick Johnson, Marlins Manager Fredi González countered with lefty Taylor Tankersley. Friday night, Johnson drilled a three-run double off Tankersley to deliver a win. Sunday, Johnson checked his swing on a 2-2 slider in the dirt. He went around, and Tankersley followed by striking out Felipe López to end the threat.
That was one significant exchange. The other came in the bottom of the eighth, after Milledge's misplay of Ross's fly ball put runners on second and third with one out. Rivera, as Acta said, "worked hard to get" Matt Treanor on a strikeout. He then got pinch hitter Luis González in an 0-2 hole, only to wind up walking him.
"That inning turned out to be pretty ugly," Acta said, "but it starts there."
That brought up Ramírez. With the count 0-1, Rivera unleashed a fastball. "I just threw it away," he said, and the ball bounced so high, Cantú was able to score as Estrada had to wait for it to come down. He then shoveled to Rivera, but the ball kicked away toward the first base dugout. Ross then alertly jetted around from second to score, making it 4-1. On Rivera's next pitch, Ramírez hit another home run to center.
"I still think my club is better than what we're playing right now," Acta said. "I know they're better than what they're playing right now."
Perhaps the evidence awaits in Atlanta.