Nats' Slip-Ups Lead to A Fall

After a single by Felipe López, Wily Mo Peña, representing the go-ahead run, is tagged out at home by Houston's Brad Ausmus to end the seventh.
After a single by Felipe López, Wily Mo Peña, representing the go-ahead run, is tagged out at home by Houston's Brad Ausmus to end the seventh. (By Dave Einsel -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 8, 2008

HOUSTON, May 7 -- Go down the list of mistakes the Washington Nationals made Wednesday night, and it might take a while. They allowed a two-out, two-run single to Houston pitcher Roy Oswalt, a blow that gave the Astros a lead. Their third base coach, Tim Tolman, got another runner thrown out at the plate, again by a wide margin. They allowed the Astros four stolen bases, including a key swipe by Kazuo Matsui in the ninth.

But in the half-hour after the 4-3 loss at Minute Maid Park -- one that ended when Houston left fielder Carlos Lee hit a line-drive single to center with one out and runners at the corners in the bottom of the ninth -- Joel Hanrahan sat at his locker, his back to the visitors' clubhouse. An ice pack wrapped around his right elbow. His teammates ate quietly, showered, watched video. Hanrahan sat still, bare-footed, silent.

"I mean, I really . . . I've got no answer for it right now," Hanrahan said. "I don't know. You can't win ballgames by walking people, and that's what I did."

The analysis is simultaneously more complex and exactly that simple, because all those other factors went into the Nationals' second straight one-run loss here, their first back-to-back defeats since April 20-21. They wasted a two-home run game from slow-starting third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who might finally be finding his stroke. They endured a five-inning start from left-hander Odalis Pérez, who was so sick he vomited after the first inning. And they produced their own video of "Astros Run Wild," because their catchers haven't come close to slowing down Houston's running game.

But in the final three innings, it came down to Hanrahan, a power-armed right-hander who the Nationals are trying to convert from a starter to a reliever. His line: 2 1/3 innings, no hits, five walks, three strikeouts -- and the run that lost the game.

Translate those numbers into English, and it would read something like this: Hanrahan has a powerful arm and a nasty slider that are both good enough to easily retire major league hitters, but he simply can't throw the ball over the plate with anything resembling consistency.

"I don't know," Hanrahan said. "I'm just not throwing strikes. I guess I'm maybe trying too hard to throw strikes and it's getting in my head. Right now, I'm not doing it."

And because of that, it is costing the Nationals games. As Manager Manny Acta said: "He has to be more consistent finding the strike zone, because we all know he has all that stuff. There are a lot of guys in the game who can throw the ball that hard, but he has to harness that stuff."

He has not yet done it. The five walks Wednesday gave him 18 on the season in just 19 innings, the most for a National League reliever. Conversely, his 27 strikeouts are second- most among NL relievers, trailing only Chicago's Carlos Marmol.

"When I throw it over the plate," he said, "I have good results."

They aren't paying off for the Nationals right now. Zimmerman's second home run off Oswalt, a solo shot in the top of the sixth, had forged a 3-3 tie headed into the late innings. The Nationals might have taken the lead on Oswalt in the seventh, when Felipe López singled sharply to center with runners on first and second and two outs.

Anyone who has watched the Nationals closely the past two years knows the struggles of Tolman, the third base coach. Tuesday night, Hunter Pence threw out Zimmerman at the plate by a wide margin because Tolman sent him home with two outs on a hard-hit ball. Wednesday night, Tolman repeated the instructions with Wily Mo Peña. Houston center fielder Michael Bourn came up with the ball before Peña's foot touched third base. Bourn's one-hop throw got to catcher Brad Ausmus long before Peña did, and the easy out ended the inning.

So no lead. Lefty Mike O'Connor -- making his last relief appearance before heading to the rotation Saturday night -- survived a shaky sixth, and the game was handed to Hanrahan in the seventh. He immediately pitched himself into trouble when he walked Matsui to lead things off, then intentionally walked the scalding Lance Berkman -- who homered off Pérez and has reached base nine times in 10 plate appearances in this series.

But then came a glimpse of why the Nationals are intrigued. He struck out Lee -- who beat the Nationals with a two-run double in the bottom of the eighth Tuesday -- on a hard slider, down and in, and then got Pence to fly out to center.

Encouraging? Or not?

"It's a situation I probably shouldn't have been in in the first place," Hanrahan said.

Yet in the ninth, he was right back in it. Matsui led off the inning, with the lethal combination of Miguel Tejada, Berkman and Lee to follow.

"You can't walk him," Acta said.

Hanrahan knew it.

"I said, 'He's going to be taking a strike, just get a strike over,' " Hanrahan said.

The result: four straight balls. When Matsui stole second -- "I wish we could do that," Zimmerman said -- Hanrahan struck out Tejada. He then intentionally walked Berkman, all because of the leadoff walk to Matsui.

"When it gets in your head," Hanrahan said, "I guess maybe that's my problem."

The next problem: a wild pitch that sent Matsui to third. Lee followed with his liner to center, one Lastings Milledge couldn't track down. With that, Hanrahan was left slumped in a chair, his powerful arm wrapped up, wondering where his next pitch in his next outing would go.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company