A 'Meltdown' in Miami

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008

MIAMI, Sept. 14 -- Down it all came at once -- pick your metaphor: an avalanche, a meltdown, a collapse; anything that stops at the bottom will do -- and when the eighth inning ended Sunday afternoon, the only thing the Washington Nationals could do was look up and wonder what happened.

How had they blown such a lead? How did a team that had pitched 1,324 innings this year save its very worst for the very last of a long road trip?

In the bottom of the eighth, an entire baseball team fell fast and hard. A five-run Washington lead kept closing, closing, closing, and no pitching change, no critical fielding play could stop the inevitable endpoint: By the final out of the inning, the entire lead was gone, and Washington fell at Dolphin Stadium to the Florida Marlins, 8-7, in what Manager Manny Acta called "a big-time meltdown."

The eighth inning included -- and those with existing heart conditions are advised to skip this paragraph -- four pitchers (two of whom recorded no outs), back-to-back walks to start the inning, 51 pitches, two egregious errors (including what Acta described as a "no-look pass"), seven runs, five hits, and a lingering sense of disbelief. With that, the Nationals left Florida with a five-game losing streak and a 2-7 record on this road trip.

"Not pretty," Acta said. "That's all you can say."

"It just kind of got out of hand," reliever Steven Shell (2-2) said.

To understand the full brutality of the eighth, where a 6-1 lead became an 8-6 deficit, you must know what came beforehand. Florida's rally, after all, cast Washington's earlier efforts with a tinge of regret. A Washington lineup that included six rookies and just 30 total home runs (or two fewer than Florida's Mike Jacobs) patched together some respectable production, first manufacturing a tight lead, then adding some insurance with a three-run home run by Ryan Langerhans that followed back-to-back bunt singles from Ryan Zimmerman and Lastings Milledge.

Meantime, Washington starter Collin Balester went deep into the afternoon with a masterpiece. He didn't allow a hit until there were two outs in the sixth. Pulled an inning later, Balester had allowed one run in 6 2/3 innings.

"The kid was brilliant on the mound," Acta said.

The final task fell to Washington's relievers, who had to make the brilliance count. Suffice to say, trying to cram a year's worth of misplays into one inning was the wrong strategy. The bottom of the eighth opened with normally reliable Saúl Rivera, who walked Hanley Ramírez and John Baker, just enough of an opportunity that Florida reawakened and saw its chance. Jorge Cantú followed with a two-run double, and suddenly, the downward momentum was roaring, and every pitch added to its power. Charlie Manning replaced Rivera and threw five pitches -- four balls -- to pinch hitter Paul Lo Duca. ("I think the turning point was walking Lo Duca," Acta later said.) Manning exited, Shell entered, and the next two batters singled, slicing Washington's lead to 6-5.

One out later, closer Joel Hanrahan took the mound. Runners stood on first and third.

What happened next served up a double order of surprise. Alfredo Amézaga caught Hanrahan off guard by dropping a bunt to the first base side of the pitcher's mound. Hanrahan tried to make a sliding catch, ended up just short, and found himself on his knees with no play at home -- as Dan Uggla scored the tying run. So Hanrahan, still on the grass, surprised all onlookers by shuffling the ball like an option quarterback toward first base -- even though he never turned to look for somebody covering the bag.

Nobody was there.

"I saw Amézaga and thought maybe I'd have a chance to get him at first if somebody was there and it turned out [first baseman] Kory [Casto] was right behind me," Hanrahan said. "I didn't look and see if anybody was there. My reaction was just to throw it over there."

The rest of the inning brought the collapse to its fitting end. Pinch hitter Josh Willingham smashed a single to left field, scoring Florida's sixth run of the inning, and then a Casto error on a routine grounder helped the Marlins close the scoring. The seven-run inning wasn't the worst allowed by Washington this season -- twice teams have scored eight -- but it was the most costly.

"It's ugly that you go out there and walk four or five guys and not even give the hitters a chance to put the ball in play and let our defense do the work," Acta said. "We've had a few bad innings -- I mean, I'm not counting them -- but this one was pretty bad."

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