No Runs Over, So Nats' Run Is Over

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Washington Nationals lost by four and lost one last night. A streak snapped. An ankle bent. The old pattern of baseball from an earlier part of the summer -- when the injuries just about outnumbered the victories -- returned, uninvited, to Nationals Park.

A day that started with a seven-game winning streak ended with a 4-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, a reversion that halted Washington's hottest stretch of the year and perhaps ended the season for its starting catcher, Jesús Flores. As happened so often before this past week, the Nationals were hit on both ends, subdued by good pitching and jolted by an injury that will force a roster reshuffling.

In the third inning, Flores, 23, was knocked from the game with what the team initially called a left ankle sprain. X-rays taken last night showed no obvious signs of fracture, though an MRI exam, scheduled for today, will reveal more. Just minutes after Flores left the field on a stretcher, the Nationals, with just one other catcher on their 40-man roster (Wil Nieves), gave word to Class AAA Columbus's Luke Montz that he was heading to the big leagues. Montz, who was added to the 40-man roster last night, will be with Washington today.

It all means that Flores's last moment of the 2008 season might just be the one that knocked him to the ground. Flores suffered his injury during an unusual play, blocking the plate as Philadelphia's Chase Utley attempted to steal home with a headfirst charge.

Utley had been waiting on third with two outs, the Phillies already ahead 2-0. Jayson Werth stood on first. When Washington's pitcher, John Lannan, made a pick-off move to first, Utley broke for home. He came hard and fast, lowering his body just as Flores turned to receive the throw from first baseman Ronnie Belliard. Flores stretched out his arm just so slightly to make the catch, leaving himself prone. A half-beat after he caught the ball, Utley collided with him. Utley was out, and Flores was down. Though Manager Manny Acta expressed hope that his catcher might return before the season ends, perhaps even in 10 to 12 days, he said he didn't yet know.

"When I saw him in the type of pain he was," Acta said, "I was very worried."

Flores writhed in pain. Trainers stood by his side, stabilizing his left leg. After several minutes, Flores was lifted onto a stretcher and hauled away in a cart. The Nationals were concerned, but not upset; after the game, nobody took issue with Utley, known as one of baseball's scrappiest players.

"We looked at the video several times," Acta said. "We didn't think it was a dirty play."

"He's a player that plays hard," Ryan Zimmerman said. "I don't know if it was out of line, but I don't think it was. Kind of just unfortunate."

Utley felt like he had gotten a good jump. But Belliard's throw compensated.

"I do feel bad [Flores] was hurt," Utley said. "My intention was definitely not to hurt him. My intention was to knock the ball loose."

Both Acta and players later admitted that Flores's injury caused their momentum to fizzle. But that narrative short-changes Philadelphia starter Cole Hamels, who was great on a day when Lannan (six innings, two runs) was merely good. That Hamels threw 7 1/3 dominant innings was little surprise; he has owned the Nationals this year (22 1/3 innings, one run, 0.40 ERA). Only once did Washington generate a serious challenge to Hamels's dominance, and that came in the second, just a half-inning before Philadelphia manufactured two runs against Lannan.

Here, the Nationals un-manufactured runs. With Flores batting and no outs, Belliard, who had singled, stood on third. Elijah Dukes, who had doubled, stood on second. Flores lofted a short flair into center, sending Philadelphia's Shane Victorino on a sliding chase for a shoestring catch. When Victorino popped up, having recorded the out, he noticed Dukes two-thirds of the way to third. Dukes was easily doubled up, and when the next batter, Alberto Gonzalez, grounded out to second, Washington had squandered its chance.

"When you have your chances against guys like that, you have to capitalize, because you're not going to have that many more chances," Zimmerman said.

Lannan (8-13) surrendered two in the third, runs that cycled in when the top of Philadelphia's order -- Jimmy Rollins, Utley and Werth -- produced a series of singles. Both Utley and Werth got their hits on 0-2 counts. And once Utley reached base, the wheels were set in motion for what was to come.

"Basically," Philadelphia Manager Charlie Manuel said, "he had to hit the catcher because he was out. That's the way I saw it. That's kind of how you play the game. I hope the kid is okay."

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