By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 20, 2008
The battle for sole possession of 16th place in the National League already had an absurdist subplot before five hours of sloppy but mulish baseball locked the San Diego Padres and Washington Nationals into a near stalemate. Indeed, two of the worst teams in baseball couldn't decide who was worse.
San Diego scored the go-ahead run early this morning to end a 14-inning game when Washington right fielder Elijah Dukes trotted a few feet shy of the outfield wall, thinking he was about to watch a home run from Chase Headley sail above his head. Instead, the ball plunked the top of the fence. That misplay, which led to a Headley RBI triple, opened the floodgates for the Padres' long-dormant offense, incited a five-run half inning against Washington reliever Levale Speigner and allowed (or forced) the Padres to walk away with an 11-6 victory.
Even without the help of the subtext -- officials from both teams joked about this series' implications for 2009 draft positioning -- the long night was perfect with oddities. At 12:25 a.m., in the 14th, Speigner threw the 500th pitch of the game. Several players had eight plate appearances. Washington batters walked 12 times, but the team couldn't score in its final six innings. Oh, and the presidents raced twice.
All year, San Diego and Washington have stood eye-to-eye, and so it felt appropriate that the clubs maintained that equilibrium right down to the inning. The game was tied at 2, at 4, at 5, and, entering extra innings tied at 6. Like dance partners, the teams moved in lockstep -- forward steps, backward steps.
"We had our chances. We were playing hard. We just couldn't come up with a hit," Washington Manager Manny Acta said.
Washington received the initial advantage, even before game time, when San Diego scratched scheduled starter Jake Peavy (the 2007 Cy Young Award winner's wife was about to deliver their third child) and replaced him with Dirk Hayhurst, a 27-year-old rookie perhaps best known, before his Aug. 23 call-up, for keeping a blog called "The Non-Prospect Diary."
Hayhurst was chased after 3 1/3 innings, just two outs shy of tying his longest major league start, but Washington pitcher Collin Balester had his own problems. The first three batters he faced in the fourth all scored, two runs coming on a Kevin Kouzmanoff homer to left-center, which gave San Diego a 4-2 lead.
Washington tied it in the bottom of the fourth when Mike Ekstrom, brought on with the bases loaded to relieve Hayhurst, threw 22 pitches to the next three batters, gave up a hit to the pitcher, and walked Emilio Bonifacio.
Both teams added single runs in the sixth and eighth, inching the score forward and pushing the game into extra innings where, eventually, some team was bound to jump ahead in the standings.
Front-office members on both sides acknowledge that these two teams have a legitimate chance to claim one of baseball's top prizes -- the No. 1 pick in the 2009 June draft. Problem is, a team could only earn such a prize by losing, and losing more often than anybody else. On that count, the Padres and Nationals are worthy adversaries. Both entered the night with 58-95 records. The Seattle Mariners entered last night's play with the same mark, and they were shut out by Oakland.
With three teams in the running for the top pick, this Padres-Nationals encounter was the closest thing late September could offer to the Stephen Strasburg Sweepstakes, where losing means winning.
Strasburg is a 20-year-old pitcher, currently enrolled at San Diego State, who already has pitched for the U.S. Olympic team and earned reviews as the most refined pitching prospect in a decade. Though the next nine months could change things, Strasburg's current profile makes him the consensus top pick, an instant franchise anchor. It also made him an uncomfortable topic of conversation.
"I have no comment on that question," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said, when asked about this series and Strasburg. "Look, the players and the Nationals' coaching staff, we're trying to win every game, and that's what we're trying to do."
"Do we think about it? Sure, you think about it."
One journalist pressed further, referencing the right-hander as an "absurdly good talent."
"He is," Bowden acknowledged without hesitation. "[Josh] Beckett-[Mark] Prior level talent. That's what he is."
To be clear, participants in last night's game paid Strasburg no attention, and felt no desire for a sideshow. With just more than a week left in the season, Washington's goals -- per Acta -- are modest but specific.
"Weak goals," he called them. "Not finishing last, not losing 100, not having the worst record."