For Nats, It's Just One Of Those Days -- Again

Twins pitcher Kevin Slowey throws against the Nationals in the first inning.
Twins pitcher Kevin Slowey throws against the Nationals in the first inning. (Jim Mone - AP)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008

MINNEAPOLIS, June 18 -- Most analysis after this game, delivered with the requisite post-loss succinctness, began with the word "just." The bullpen "just couldn't throw strikes," the manager said. The pitcher called it "just a tough day." When the center fielder tried to snag a double off the wall, he "just couldn't grip it," he said.

Malfunction seized almost every aspect of Washington's 11-2 loss to Minnesota on Wednesday night. The mess was shaped by three fielding errors, a two-inning bullpen breakdown and, nearly, a triple play off the bat of Paul Lo Duca. When it all ended after just less than three hours -- long after many of the Metrodome's 23,841 had headed home, confident of their team's win -- the Nationals headed back to their cluttered clubhouse with a nagging realization:

Helpless nights like this are just a part of playing for the Washington Nationals.

"Just have to keep fighting," Aaron Boone said. "Just have to push."

Two days earlier, the Nationals had arrived in Minneapolis hoping to build on unprecedented success. They had just swept the Seattle Mariners. The offense had awoken from a season-long hibernation. Sure, they were still in last place, but at least they looked capable of impersonating a team that wasn't.

But in short time, futility can make the good stuff ancient history, which is why two consecutive losses to the Twins have returned Washington to default mode, that of a team looking for answers, even knowing few exist.

"I am not disappointed," Manager Manny Acta said. "This is what we have. We're going to battle every single day. We're going to win some and we're going to lose some."

Some of the problems Wednesday felt familiar. The offense found innumerable ways to avoid runs. Hits were spread too thin to matter. An early deficit dug too deep a hole. Shaky bullpen work made it even deeper.

And this time, Washington even found a way to sneak a new problem, fielding, into the mix.

Because of injuries and a little lineup experimentation -- namely, Washington's decision to trial-run Lo Duca at first base -- the Nationals began this game with a defense that only vaguely replicated the alignment of those before it. With Wily Mo Peña struggling, Kory Casto played left field. With Ryan Zimmerman out and Ronnie Belliard resting, Boone played third.

Granted, all season, the Nationals have reconfigured their position players, and though the changes have decimated their offense, their defense has remained, most games, reliable. They entered Wednesday with a middle-of-the-pack .985 fielding percentage; they had committed 41 errors, 11th best in baseball. Just a day before, Acta had mentioned how his team's pitching and -- with less fanfare -- fielding had helped compensate for Washington's ineffective lineup.

But this time, defense abandoned the Nationals. In the first four innings, they made three errors -- and could easily have been charged with two more.

In the first two innings alone, with Jason Bergmann pitching, the Nationals overthrew balls, missed balls and bobbled balls. Boone fielded a bunt barehanded and zipped it several feet to the left of Lo Duca, pulling him from the bag. (The ruling: error.) An inning later, Lo Duca ranged right to snare a skipping grounder and had it glance off his glove. (No error.) A cut-off throw from Cristian Guzmán to Boone could have netted a base running out at third, but Boone couldn't handle the throw. (No error.) Finally, center fielder Lastings Milledge -- fielding a Brendan Harris double off the wall -- attempted a quick throw back to the infield, but the ball fell from his mitt. A third Minnesota run scored. (Error.)

"We've played tremendous defense until this past week, and we just have to pick it up," Acta said.

At least until Washington's bullpen yielded eight runs in its final two innings, Bergmann kept the Nationals in the game -- and dotted the contest with its only bright spot. Coming off two turbulent starts, and dealt in this game a defense-dug hole, Bergmann allowed just one hit in his final four innings.

Looking like the pitcher who made four consecutive dazzling starts after his recall from Class AAA Columbus on May 14, Bergmann induced batters into infield popups and used his curveball for strikeouts.

Asked about the defense behind him, Bergmann said: "I mean, it's my job to pick up guys, too, and they're going to pick me up at times. It's a long season. You can't get frustrated by that."

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