By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 19 -- Into the night it went, and the crowd that heard the crack then made a roar of its own. Jayson Werth's home run fell one row beyond the left field fence, straight into the frenzy, and Citizens Bank Park erupted. A pattern of gong-like rings pounded the air. Halfway into Werth's trot, music pulsed. That's what a knockout sounds like.
With one swing Tuesday night, Werth did to the Washington Nationals what the Nationals had tried and failed to do the entire game. He decided things. He gave the Phillies a lead, and they protected it the way a team with the right instincts for winning tends to do. Closer Brad Lidge shut things down in the ninth, and Washington was full-nelsoned into a 5-4 loss -- perhaps the most unsettling of its 11 consecutive defeats, because this game had every chance to snap the streak instead of elongate it, if only the team had a killer instinct.
On this night, the Nationals filled much of the game with highlights, the sort of efforts worth preserving. Ronnie Belliard went 4 for 4, pitcher Jason Bergmann worked into the seventh and catcher Jesús Flores had one of the most triumphant at-bats of the season, an 11-pitch full-length feature in which he fought back from an 0-2 count and drove in a run. But all of that disappeared inside the bigger narrative: The Nationals lost a lead, entered the eighth inning with a tie, and lost that, too, with a home run thunderclap off reliever Steven Shell.
"Every loss hurts," Manager Manny Acta said, "but I mean, we had the lead and [Bergmann] was pitching very good and we thought we had a very good chance today to snap out of it."
For much of this losing streak, the Nationals have looked like losers. Tuesday, they looked like a team that doesn't know how to win. There is a difference, and it's writ small. The Phillies scored three of their runs on sacrifice flies; the Nationals failed to execute a key sacrifice bunt when Bergmann batted in the sixth. The Nationals out-hit the Phillies 11-7, but they also committed the game's most critical mistake, dropping a fly ball that led to an unearned run.
"Today we were right there, we were right there," left fielder Willie Harris said. "We just couldn't close it out, couldn't finish them off."
To do that, Harris would have needed to catch the fly ball that looped his way in the fifth inning, at which point Washington had a 4-1 lead. Already by then, Harris had homered, a solo shot in the first. And in the fourth, Flores had produced Washington's second run with the sort of absorbing effort that can generally spark a win.
"Tremendous," Acta called the at-bat.
Philadelphia pitcher Joe Blanton, with runners on first and third and no outs, started Flores with two fastballs, both fouled off. Then, slowly, the at-bat built -- a ball, another foul, a ball, another two fouls. The eighth pitch, a breaking ball, dipped just low, running the count full. The crowd noticed; its noise rose for the next pitches; the duel between batter and pitcher had become an epic, and epics need good endings. Flores fouled off the ninth pitch into the first base stands. The 10th pitch, a breaking ball across the fat of the plate, Flores fouled straight back. He smacked his helmet as the ball parachuted out of play.
But Flores won with the 11th pitch. Blanton threw a fastball low, and Flores punched it on the ground between short and third -- a soft roller. Lastings Milledge jogged home, reached the dugout and exchanged high-fives with giddy teammates. All the while, seven Phillies -- four infielders, the catcher, Blanton and a coach -- converged on the mound.
Philadelphia needed to regain its balance.
And it did. Even after the Nationals grabbed two more runs, the Phillies charged back, and the Nationals were ready to allow it. The fifth inning started when Shane Victorino tripled off Bergmann. The next batter, Greg Dobbs, hit the sort of lazy bloop to shallow left that doesn't score the runner -- unless, that is, Harris, the left fielder, charges, charges, charges late, flips his glove basket-style and has the ball bounce straight out. Victorino trotted home, opening the gates for a Philadelphia comeback.
"Things are just going bad for us right now," Harris said. "Whether it be, whatever. I don't know why. I don't understand it. We played a good game; we just didn't win. We can point and break down a lot of things why we didn't win, but we didn't win. I'm sick of saying it myself."