Peña's Pain Helps Explain Nats' Struggles In Another Loss

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008

The numbers alone explain one kind of pain -- that of expectation unmet. Wily Mo Peña, a left fielder for the Washington Nationals, a punch line for many of the team's followers, went 0 for 4 last night, meaning he's now batting .205. The best raw power hitter on the team has two home runs all season. He looks, to use the words of his manager, "lost at the plate."

Last night's 6-4 loss to the Houston Astros at Nationals Park intensified the woe of Peña's season, prompting Washington Nationals hitting coach Lenny Harris to explain the second kind of pain -- the one in Peña's left shoulder that he has fought, without complaint, all season. Speaking after the defeat, Harris portrayed Peña's year as a silent, helpless battle against an injury that hurts just enough to limit his success at the plate but feels just well enough to keep him in the lineup.

As a result, Peña is stuck in a strange purgatory -- able to play, never able to perform.

With a stronger Peña, Washington might have grabbed a comeback win last night. His sixth-inning at-bat came at just the time when a single would have tied the game. By the time Peña received his chance against Houston reliever Chris Sampson, his teammates already had lit the stadium with the energy of an expected comeback. Willie Harris had homered. A conga line of singles, a walk and a hit batter further trimmed Houston's lead and loaded the bases with one out.

But given an opportunity to turn a deficit into a lead, Peña reverted to typical form, smacking a 1-1 pitch right back to Sampson. The pitcher threw home. The catcher threw to first. The inning ended, and Washington never threatened again. Because of Peña's failure, a sloppy Collin Balester start (4 2/3 innings, 11 hits, 6 runs, 4 earned) remained the stumbling block that an offense couldn't hurdle. A fifth-inning throwing error by Ronnie Belliard and a mental lapse from first baseman Paul Lo Duca -- after an unassisted putout at first, LoDuca never moved to tag out Carlos Lee returning to first base -- had Manager Manny Acta lamenting his team's "weak defense."

More than anything, though, Acta wondered what has happened to his 25-year-old outfielder, a player who entered the season with a home run-hitting track record, per at-bat, similar to Alfonso Soriano and Vladimir Guerrero.

"That was the at-bat that probably disinflated us, basically," Acta said of Peña's 1-2-3 double play. "It took all of the air out of us right there. He chased a pitch low out of the zone in that situation and just made their night, basically."

Harris said that Peña has battled through much of the season with left shoulder pain, and will be examined tomorrow, possibly given a cortisone shot. Peña's determination to play in spite of his inability has led to a destructive cycle: He hits more and more in the batting cage, sometimes taking three to five sessions daily; he grows more and more frustrated; he feels more and more urgency to hit; he grows more and more dejected when he misses chances such as yesterday's.

"He's been playing like that [hurt] the whole year," Harris said. "To me, he ain't been the same. Especially all the work he's done in the cage, he's been trying to fight it. It's just tough on him. Because last year, he was so used to doing well, hitting well. And now he's in situations where he's fighting it, fighting it."

Peña was unavailable for comment after last night's game, but he has repeatedly waved off chances to elaborate on his injury. Harris, meanwhile, has tried to guard Peña from his own hard-headedness, fearing that Peña spends so much time in the cage that it actually backfires. Peña has taken a steady dose of anti-inflammatory medication this season, Harris said, which helps mask the injury briefly. But when such a treatment wears off, the shoulder feels like "needles," Harris said.

The shoulder injury especially limits Peña's ability to hit pitches low and inside, pitches he must reach by shortening his arms and bending his elbows. The pitch that Peña nubbed back to the mound in the sixth inning? A slider, low in the strike zone. When Peña returned to the dugout, Harris preached the familiar message: Peña needed to relax.

But that's a message Peña has been unable to heed all season. On a team undercut by more serious injuries, Peña, who blasted eight home runs in just 133 at-bats with Washington last season, feels obliged to suck up his own and remain in the lineup.

"I see [dejection] in his face," Harris said. "He has his head down a lot. When a big guy and strong as he is has pain, I mean, none of us will feel the pain he's in. Because he's stronger than five guys. And so it's amazing that he's going out there and trying to do the things he can. He's been brave. I've got to give it to him."

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