By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 30, 2008
SAN DIEGO, May 29 -- In the two-odd hours of baseball that preceded Charlie Manning's appearance on the mound Thursday afternoon, the Washington Nationals had done everything in their very limited power to keep the game close. They'd stolen bases and sacrificed runners and turned walks into runs. They'd robbed San Diego of a go-ahead homer. In just enough moments, the meek had triumphed. The Nationals were tied.
Of course, they needed Manning, 29, to keep them tied. Manning is a Nationals relief pitcher, and has been for a full week, dating back to his major league call-up last Friday. A career that lasts multiple weeks -- or even survives the weekend -- now looks highly dubious, though, because on Thursday Manning entered a still undecided game and surrendered the kind of thunderous home run that Washington had no prayer of answering.
The eighth inning three-run blast from Jody Gerut handed the Padres a series-deciding 5-2 victory at Petco Park and supplied further realization about the Nationals' predicament. These days, to even have a chance, Washington needs a bullpen that can hold games, not lose a handle on them. It needs a left-handed specialist who specializes not just in facing left-handers, but in getting them out.
When Manning arrived on May 23 from Class AAA Columbus, Manager Manny Acta indicated that his new lefty would be used most often to face left-handed batters. Manning lacked a top pedigree -- he signed with the organization last Dec. 18 as a minor league free agent -- but his performance with the Clippers indicated some potential.
"Coming into spring training he wasn't in our plans," Acta said. "But he's here for us to take a look at to see if he can get lefties out, and that's what we're doing."
The 18 pitches Manning threw Thursday offered a suggestion. Back-to-back hits earlier that inning had chased Saúl Rivera, who Acta had hoped could last until the ninth. But with Rivera grooving pitches, the Nationals turned to Manning. Runners were on first and second with one out for Gerut, a lefty who had managed just one prior home run this season.
Then, on a 1-2 pitch, a quiet game exploded. So did Washington's tie. Gerut ripped a slider -- "I just hung it up there," Manning said -- down the right field line, and it left the park with such speed that nobody needed to watch where it landed. A foghorn blasted. Three runners circled the bases.
For Manning, who has allowed four runs in four innings, it was the second home run he has surrendered to a left-handed batter.
"I came up here to get lefties out, and the last two games I haven't been able to do that," Manning said. "I've given up home runs. So, there's something I need to prove."
He paused a beat, then added: "And quickly."
Until Gerut's home run, Washington had subsisted on the smallest kind of small ball. Pitcher John Lannan turned in another reliable start with six innings and two runs. Meanwhile, the Nationals' offense -- powerless to the point of pity -- relied on the only devices it had.
The Nationals scored in the fourth with a Lastings Milledge bunt base hit, a steal of second, a steal of third and, finally, a sacrifice fly by Elijah Dukes.
They scored again in the seventh with a similar formula -- a one-out walk by Dukes, a stolen base, a pinch-hit single by Ryan Langerhans.
On the day, Washington collected a season-high four stolen bases; Acta later said, "That was the only way we could basically score today."
At least for one game, the Nationals also had success taking scores away. In the eighth, with Rivera still pitching, San Diego third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff socked a ball to left field that enabled Langerhans -- just inserted as a defensive replacement -- to make one of the most spectacular plays of the season.
Langerhans tracked the fly ball to the fence, near the 357-foot sign, and then leapt. His black mitt extended two feet above the wall. His right arm almost hit that of a fan, also going for the ball. Then, in an instant, Langerhans landed. Those at Petco paused.
Only when Langerhans removed the ball from his glove did everybody realize that a home run had been robbed, a tie game preserved.
"We were playing [to prevent] doubles, so I was already back pretty close to the wall," Langerhans said. "And I just went back and tried to get myself lined up. And just, you know, sometimes it's tough with a real high one like that. I just tried to time my jump right."
Said Acta: "It was an unbelievable play. It's too bad it's not going to be part of a win."