By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 26 -- The Washington Nationals stepped into the froth of playoff intensity Friday night, and it was white, the color of 44,145 twirling towels. Everybody who passed into Citizens Bank Park received a towel. And everybody who got one used it a lot. The towels were screen-printed with two sponsor logos and one message -- "Fightin' Phils" -- and they accessorized a frenzy: Postseason-style baseball. Washington witnessed its power in the same way a sock witnesses a spin cycle.
Given the chance to derail Philadelphia's bid for the playoffs, the Nationals merely enabled it, losing 8-4 in the first of a three-game series. Coupled with the New York Mets' loss to Florida, Philadelphia now leads the NL East by two games with two to play. And its last obstacle, the 100-loss Nationals, is a last-place team that, at least Friday, walked away from the charged atmosphere wondering what happened.
"Crazy," catcher Luke Montz called the scene.
"It's amazing to see this," first baseman Kory Casto said, "and see how many people come out. And they're loud."
The upheaval started right along with the game. There was 22-year-old rookie Collin Balester walking to the mound, bottom of the first, just his 15th big league start and his first in any game resembling this one. He lucked out with a leadoff lineout to center. He served up back-to-back singles, both hit hard. He was serving up fat pitches to the most powerful lineup in the National League, and already, the stadium sensed it. Pitching coach Randy St. Claire visited the mound. Ryan Howard, baseball's top home run hitter, twisted his cleats into the left side of the batter's box.
Balester threw his second pitch to Howard knee high, just inside.
Howard unloaded -- one looping swing, one crack -- and the ball soared high toward center, into the swirling, spectral mist. Nobody even needed to see it land. Citizens Bank Park erupted. Center fielder Lastings Milledge chased Howard's 48th home run to the 398 sign in center, but it sailed into Philadelphia's bullpen. Several relievers already had their fists raised high. Philadelphia led 3-0, and by the middle of the next inning, it was 6-1 thanks to a Chase Utley bases-loaded, bases-clearing double.
One Howard double later, Balester's night ended. He'd lasted 1 2/3 innings, charged with seven runs and seven hits. "It was a horrible game," Balester (3-7) said.
He left behind a contest that was still seven innings from its finish, but largely decided. Only in the sixth inning did some novelty interrupt: A fan in the first row of the right field bleachers reached in front of the wall to grab a Casto home run, leading to an official instant replay review. For two minutes, the game was paused. The Phillies fan (wearing a pinstriped Howard jersey -- white, of course) spent the time on his cellphone. Then, home plate umpire Andy Fletcher reemerged from the replay station hidden within the lower stadium concourse and signaled, with a twirl of the right hand, that the home run stood.
Before this game, Washington's players acknowledged their fortune to finish the year with a consequential series. They looked forward to the atmosphere. Some players, at least, planned at night's end to scan for Brewers and Mets highlights, and recalibrate the playoff scenario. Conventional thinking suggested that the Nationals had experience with such matters, given how they had concluded 2007 with critical showdowns against, first, the Mets, and then, the Phillies.
This time, the scenario repeated, but the experience, because of injuries and roster turnover, was new. Of the 30 active Washington players Friday night, only eight were around for last year. The Nationals' starting lineup included eight players in their first year with the organization and one, Cristian Guzmán, who was sidelined at this time last year by a thumb injury.
So, before this game, pitcher Jason Bergmann -- who started last year's season finale, and pitched 2 1/3 scoreless relief innings Friday -- leaned back in a clubhouse chair and surveyed his surroundings. "I'm just looking out," he said, "and I don't see anybody who was here last year."
Balester, one of the newcomers, filled the idle pregame moments hoping to match the game's magnitude. "You script that in your mind," he said. "I wanted to go out there and shut them out for eight, nine innings."
Instead, Washington's chances were swallowed in the noise and mayhem, and Philadelphia didn't relent. Even in the ninth inning, Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel emerged from the dugout to argue a call on a two-strike pitch to Casto. Casto tipped the ball into the dirt. Manuel wanted a strikeout. He argued chin-to-chin for several minutes with both Fletcher and third base umpire Mike Reilly, and Citizens Bank loved it. "Charlie! Charlie!" the crowd roared, as the manager was ejected.
So what was Manuel saying?
"You know," Casto said, "I couldn't even really hear him because the fans were so loud. I just saw lips moving."
Nationals Notes: Manager Manny Acta said Friday that some on his coaching staff will not be back next season.
"Changes are going to be made," Acta said.
The manager did not specify which of his assistants would be let go, and said the team was not yet ready to make an announcement. Such a determination, though, marks the first sign of change entering the offseason; last year at this same time, Acta met with General Manager Jim Bowden and several other front-office members and emerged from the meeting by announcing that everybody on his staff would return.
All of Acta's assistants have been with the team for at least two years. One team official called the staff the "worst in baseball." . . .
Ryan Zimmerman was held out of Friday's game because of the flu, but Acta said the third baseman should be ready today.