By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
For one night, at least, just a single run separated baseball's second-worst team from its second best. But that one run, still, was a chasm.
As last night's 3-2 Washington Nationals loss to the Los Angeles Angels shows, the difference between a 30-48 team and a 47-30 team isn't so much the raw numbers, but the aesthetics. Like their records, the Nationals and Angels -- subjected to the crucible of close, late-inning baseball -- were near inverses.
The Angels, now 32-13 in games decided by two runs or less, managed to flush away the aftertaste of a critical error by battling back from a 2-1 deficit. The Nationals, meantime, undermined seven innings of impeccable baseball -- highlighted by a revival-type start from Jason Bergmann and a jump-start batting day from Willie Harris -- with a seven-pitch span of bloopers, errors, collisions and underhand tosses to nobody.
When the Nationals handed a 2-1 lead to their bullpen in the eighth, Bergmann was in line for the win. Harris, who had homered and scored both runs, was in line for all productivity that enabled it.
But in the eighth, a one-run lead flip-flopped into a one-run deficit. And again, the Nationals stomached a tough defeat. Some 10 minutes after the game, all but three or four players had left the clubhouse. It felt like a ghost town.
"It's not easy, but again, to win 2-1 you almost have to play perfect, and we were far away from perfect," Manager Manny Acta said. "Obviously, you want to win the ballgame, and some things just got out of hand defensively, which is one of our strengths."
The Angels' final two runs were less a comeback than a tragicomedy. The first batter to face Saúl Rivera, Chone Figgins, dropped a soft bunt in front of the pitcher's mound. Both Rivera and third baseman Pete Orr chased the ball. They arrived at the spot at the same time. Orr's cleat pinched Rivera's right foot. Rivera's shoe came off. Figgins scrambled to first.
And then things only got worse. Figgins stole second and moved to third on a throwing error by catcher Jesús Flores.
Acta called the infield in. Erick Aybar swatted an easy grounder to second baseman Felipe López, but the ball kicked off his glove. As the ball hopped to right fielder Elijah Dukes, who was slow to charge, Aybar sprinted to second. Dukes attempted an underhand toss to second, lofting it about 20 feet beyond the bag.
"He just couldn't catch the ground ball," Acta said of López. "I'm not going to overanalyze anything. He should have the groundball and didn't catch it."
One Garret Anderson single later, Aybar scored, and the Angels had a 3-2 lead.
Which meant that Washington's effort from the earlier innings had been wasted.
Following his pinch-hit home run Sunday, Harris earned a start in left field -- a position that, most games, grants Washington little more than graphic depiction of Wily Mo Peña's inability to hit breaking balls. The Nationals entered the season with poorer production from their left fielders than any other team in the majors. Before Harris's start, Washington's left fielders had batted .183 (51 for 279) with just two home runs. Their .244 slugging percentage trailed the next weakest team by .069 of a point.
That made Harris's contribution last night all the more welcome. In the third inning, Los Angeles pitcher John Lackey tried to sneak an outside fastball past Harris. He missed; Harris didn't. When Lackey's pitch tailed toward the middle, Harris sizzled it into the second row of the right field stands, just atop the out-of-town scoreboard. Same as one day earlier, he rounded the bases with his left arm tucked across the letters of his uniform, like a running back sprinting toward the end zone. When he reached third base coach Tim Tolman, he pretended to take a hand off.
Even when Harris wasn't carrying invisible footballs, he still carried the Nationals' offense. In the seventh inning, with the game tied, Harris crushed another Lackey pitch off the wall in right-center on one hop. This time, his on-the-base energy was stimulated by more functional purposes; his race around the bases ended with a leadoff triple.
"It's just one of those things where I feel good at the plate, seeing the ball a little better and hopefully they continue to fall for me," Harris said.
One batter later, Harris scored his second run of the game, but not before getting dirty twice. When pinch hitter Paul Lo Duca lined out to the pitcher, Harris was caught about 10 feet off third base. Lackey's throw, though, skipped past Figgins at third base.
Harris slid back to third head-first.
Figgins chased the ball toward the foul railing.
Harris hustled home, beating the throw with a feet-first slide.
He headed to the Nationals' dugout, celebrating, both sides of his uniform coated in dirt. He'd given Washington a prime opportunity. His run lifted the Nationals to a 2-1 lead. It provided Bergmann the chance for a well-deserved win -- assuming the bullpen that replaced him could hang on.