Nationals Home Opener

Nationals Fall to Phillies, 9-8, in Washington's Home Opener

Tony Kornheiser talks about voice-of-God sports announcers, the Nats' awfulness and Tiger vs. Phil. Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

In the middle of their order, the Philadelphia Phillies have a perennial MVP candidate, a home run king and one of the most consistent hitters of the last five years. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Raúl Ibáñez comprise one of baseball's most muscular cores -- and with only one caveat, the reason some mistake that six-pack for an underbelly. Utley, Howard and Ibáñez all bat left-handed. Against left-handed relief pitchers, they are still dangerous. But they're just a little less likely to single-handedly produce wins.

When the seventh inning came around in yesterday's home opener, Washington Nationals Manager Manny Acta faced a narrow dilemma. Who, from Acta's bullpen, should pitch to them? Already, the day's broader questions had been resolved. Would they play baseball, despite the death of Philadelphia broadcasting legend Harry Kalas some 105 minutes before the first pitch? Yes -- solemnly, they did. Would the Nationals even draw a full crowd? Yes -- a record 40,386 filled the blue of Nationals Park, packing the last seats of the outfield, forming standing rows along the remodeled outfield deck. Would the Nationals even keep the game close? Yes -- because entering the seventh, they were tied, within reach of their first win.

The top of the seventh, though, determined the outcome. The Nationals lost to the Phillies, 9-8, in large part because Philadelphia scored four runs on a pair of homers, one by Howard, one by Ibáñez. And that was after Acta chose to use one of his best relief pitchers, right-hander Saúl Rivera, instead of going with the best conventional wisdom.

Maybe the Nationals would have lost anyway, because lefty-righty matchups are baseball's imperfect science, sometimes better for second-guessers than managers who study the variables. Still, after the loss -- Washington's seventh in a row -- Acta found himself defending the decision, explaining that "Saúl sometimes goes three months without giving up a home run."

"You can't bring a lefty in there just to face a lefty," Acta said. "Saúl, other than probably [Joel] Hanrahan, anybody who has more than one year of service, Saúl has better numbers against lefties against any of them."

Though Rivera, who surrendered four runs, took the loss, Washington could point blame elsewhere, too. Washington's defense committed three errors, received some hometown scoring on at least one other fielding gaffe and turned several fly balls to center into carnival thrill-rides. Starter Daniel Cabrera, with his usual sustained shakiness, allowed four runs -- but only one was earned. In the meantime, the Nationals battled offensively, showing signs of an awakening lineup.

Cristian Guzmán went 5 for 5. Elijah Dukes, now 8 for 19 this year, swatted a cartoon home run, using a one-handed swing to pull a low-and-away Jamie Moyer change-up to left. Later, after Rivera allowed the four runs, Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman both contributed two-run homers that added drama but yielded no relief from the losing streak.

"We're close," Zimmerman said.

"If it wasn't for a couple big innings," Dunn said, "we obviously win this game."

Washington's bullpen is stocked with three left-handers -- Mike Hinckley, Wil Ledezma and Joe Beimel -- and on the day this spring when the team decided to keep all of them, management was clear about the purpose. Any team with membership in the National League East needs lefties for the late innings. Such a team, after all, has 18 annual dates with the Phillies.

On this particular day, Utley batted third. Howard batted fourth. Ibáñez batted sixth, tucked behind right-handed Jayson Werth. Howard, especially, loses his claws against left-handed pitchers. For his career, he has a .650 slugging percentage against righties, a .471 mark against lefties. In other words, depending on the pitcher, Howard is either better than Ted Williams or more like Garret Anderson. Ibáñez, for his career, has a .292 average against righties, a .267 against lefties.

But several things complicated the matter and explained Acta's decision. Rivera is actually stronger against left-handed batters than right-handed batters -- .273 versus .254 -- and almost never yields home runs. He's a veteran, Acta's trusted seventh-inning man for close games. Plus, Acta had burned Hinckley -- Washington's designated left-handed specialist -- one inning earlier, using him to strike out Jimmy Rollins.

"That's Manny's decision, so for me, I'm going to pitch until they tell me to stop," Hinckley said. "They told me to stop."

With Hinckley's spot in the order coming up in the bottom of the sixth, Acta had to turn to somebody else. Perhaps he could have used Beimel. Perhaps he could have saved Hinckley for the seventh, finishing the sixth with Julián Tavárez. (Acta said he never considered it.) Or, more simply, perhaps Rivera could have thrown better pitches.

He hit each of the first two hitters -- switch-hitter Shane Victorino and Utley -- with pitches, putting two on for Howard. On an 0-1 count, Rivera tried a backdoor slider. Howard gave it a direct flight vacation to the red seats in right-center. Philadelphia turned a tie into a 7-4 lead. One batter later, Ibáñez homered to center.

"For me, it's kind of tough," Rivera said. "We are hitting the ball pretty good. They keep battling. It's kind of tough for me. Personally, my opinion, we should put some zeroes and help the club out."

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