Nats Shed Some Light on Most Recent Loss

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008

The lights at Nationals Park helped nobody last night. They blinded the left fielder, who twice lost two balls in the wattage, turning routine flyouts into undeserved -- untouched -- triples. They also illuminated the ballyard on a night when all on-field aesthetics begged fans to look away.

While losing last night to the San Diego Padres, 6-1, in front of 27,474, the Washington Nationals continued their devolution with the full catalog of misfortune, much of it tough to watch. Washington committed two errors, which led to four unearned runs. By the eighth inning, even the team's most steady fielders looked like liabilities. Ryan Zimmerman fielded a grounder at third and whisked an attempted force-out throw to second into the dirt, allowing the ball to skip into the outfield. Shortstop Cristian Guzmán ranged right for a grounder and motioned to make a throw -- only to realize that he didn't have the ball. And Willie Harris, in left field, only saw a Brian Giles liner after it zipped right past him -- like a man missing his morning bus.

"No chance," Harris said. "Didn't see it."

In truth, the lights blinded the wrong party last night, because those who turned up for this game against San Diego were treated to a long night of indignities. Washington starter John Lannan had another stellar outing -- he's allowed just two runs in his last 14 innings -- and he might have been able to enjoy it had a fifth-inning fielding error by Emilio Bonifacio not led to the Padres' first three runs. Meantime, San Diego starter Chris Young held Washington scoreless through seven. The Nationals managed hits against the right-hander in the first and seventh, and nothing in between. Young produced as many runs as the Washington offense, homering in the seventh to left-center.

The second loss in a row against San Diego, and the team's fourth overall, dropped Washington's record to 58-97 with seven games to go. Only by winning at least five of the remaining seven can Washington avoid the final indictment of its season: a 100th loss.

"I mean, there's no problem with motivation," Zimmerman said. "I think we've played hard every night. There's nobody in here who is ready to go home. We have six games left now, or seven, or something like that, and we show up every day thinking we're going to win."

The root of this loss took hold in the fifth, an inning which Lannan should have departed with a shutout still intact. As he leaned in for the signal before facing the fourth batter of the inning, Will Venable, he had committed only minor mistakes -- the occupational hazards of a B-plus night. After escaping from a second-inning bases loaded situation -- the partial result of two walks -- Lannan retired the sides in the third and fourth on a combined 20 pitches. He looked much like the pitcher who had dazzled one start earlier, in a seven-inning, one-hit handling of the Mets.

Venable should have been the last batter of the fifth inning. Nick Hundley stood on second, the result of a walk and a sacrifice bunt. But there were two outs. And Venable, on a 1-2 pitch, scooted a roller up the middle, to the second base side. Second baseman Bonifacio curled in to make the play, dropping his mitt to the ground.

Or so he intended. Venable's grounder trickled beyond the infield grass, and Hundley hustled home from second. The next San Diego batter, Edgar González, parlayed Bonifacio's error into a rally. He swatted Lannan's first pitch six rows deep into left field. San Diego had a 3-0 lead; Lannan had three unearned runs to swallow.

"I felt strong," Lannan (9-14) said.

In the seventh and eighth innings, the lights -- positioned at a downward angle along the top-level stadium overhang -- came into play. Harris missed a Venable fly, which rolled and stuck itself against the bottom of the wall. One inning later, as San Diego scored two more, Harris couldn't field the Giles triple.

"Have you seen how bright those lights are?" Harris said. "It looks like the headlights on a brand new Lexus."

In the next minutes, standing in front of his clubhouse locker, Harris provided a quick analysis of the lights at his home ballpark. They're among the brightest in the league, he said. Sure, they're a problem for opposing outfielders, too, "but, I mean, we haven't been hitting many balls in the lights. They've been hitting the ball in the lights." And on this night, the lights contributed to Washington's fielding woes, which penalized Washington's pitchers.

"It kind of upsets you," Harris said, "when you don't make a play because of the lights."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company