By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Manny Acta, the Washington Nationals' normally mild-mannered manager, steamed halfway between home plate and first plate. His team was trying to reverse a losing skid against a division foe and was facing one of the finest pitchers in baseball.
Consecutive batters, neither of whom hit the baseball, reached base and broke a tie. And because both base runners resulted from the subjectivity of an umpire and not the objectivity of a bat, Acta was perturbed that two close calls helped dictate the outcome of last night's 4-3 loss to the New York Mets at Nationals Park.
"It's that human element part of the game that no one takes away," Acta said minutes after the Nationals' fifth consecutive loss.
His gripe came in the eighth inning. Nationals reliever Saúl Rivera faced the Mets' Fernando Tatis, whose check swing on a called ball four loaded the bases with one out and did not sit well with the Nationals.
"I thought, and the video showed, that he swung the bat," Acta said. "And that's one less run for us."
When Damion Easley followed Tatis to the plate, Rivera hurled a pitch too high and too far inside that home plate umpire Rob Drake ruled hit Easley's helmet. Acta and catcher Jesús Flores disagreed, causing Acta to take the field and argue that the ball hit the bat.
"I thought the ball hit the bat," Flores said. "It's really hard to figure out if the ball hit him in the helmet or the bat."
After the game, Acta admitted the umpires made the correct call. However, it was the Nationals' squandered opportunities earlier in the game that Acta said made the difference.
In the bottom of the fourth, sixth and eighth innings, the Nationals had a runner on second base with less than two outs and failed to score each time.
"The reason why we didn't win the ballgame is because of our poor execution at the plate, basically," Acta said. "That's what pretty much killed us."
The sixth-inning incident stung the Nationals the most.
With Washington trailing 3-2, Lastings Milledge led off the inning with a bunt single and ended up on second base after a throwing error by the Mets' Ramon Castro. The single marked Milledge's 13th straight game with a hit. After starting the season slowly, Milledge's recent hitting streak includes a power surge. He has hit five home runs during the stretch and emerged as perhaps the Nationals' most reliable run producer.
With Milledge on second base and no outs, the Nationals had perhaps the one player they would want up most in that situation: Flores, who was already 2 for 2 against Mets ace Johan Santana.
Unprompted, Flores tried to bunt Milledge to third -- a play that could either be interpreted as selfless or foolish, considering Flores leads the Nationals in RBI with 52.
"I was trying to move the runner," Flores said. "I don't know why I did it. It wasn't a decision for myself."
"That's part of the growing pains you go with when you deal with 23-year-olds," Acta said. "I don't think we'd be bunting in that situation."
The bunt was a sharp grounder back to Santana, Milledge was forced to remain at second base and momentum sputtered.
Santana pitched seven innings, allowed eight hits and three earned runs while striking out six batters. His third earned run came on a pinch-hit home run by Ryan Langerhans in the seventh inning. It was Langerhans's first home run since Sept. 24, 2007 -- also in a game against the Mets.
The loss spoiled a respectable pitching outing by Odalis Pérez, who rebounded from a difficult two-run first inning and finished with three earned runs allowed in six innings with five strikeouts.
"If I didn't allow those two runs in the first inning, I think we have a pretty good shot to win the game," Perez said.
The Nationals had an appealing opportunity slip from their grasp last night. Whether it was a bunt that was just a bit too hard or a pitch that was just a bit too high and inside, the margin was just enough to cause a one-run loss. And it was a revealing case study why, despite playing a respectable game, the Nationals still lost their fifth straight game and slipped to 44-76 for the season.
"It's very tough," Rivera said. "We'll be back. We're trying to win the series."