The Nationals Fall to the Marlins, 3-2, in Extra Innings After Failing to Capitalize on Strong Outings From Surprising Sources

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bizarro day ended prematurely. The string of unexpected, pleasant developments dissolved just before the Washington Nationals could afford it. For nine innings last night, they had ceased operations as usual: The manager who never gets angry got angry, the team's principally non-quality rotation submitted a quality start, and a bullpen with little experience protecting slight leads got the chance to protect a slight lead.

And that's where the good fortune of a seemingly charmed night met its limitation. Starting in the ninth inning, with a clean victory needing just some quick initials, the Nationals found a way to lose in the most disquieting way possible, falling 3-2 to the Marlins in 10 innings. Closer Joel Hanrahan, in his first save situation of the year, gave up a game-tying home run. In the 10th, Saúl Rivera surrendered three hits and a run -- all avoidable had a close outside pitch to Dan Uggla been called strike three instead of ball three.

Maybe Washington (1-8) had a right to expect a better result. A win against the Marlins -- who've now taken 18 of the last 21 in this series -- would have married a strange night with a fitting outcome. On this night, the heart of Washington's lineup -- Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn -- wore uniforms where the name across the chest was misspelled "NATINALS." And the Natinals played by different rules. They played tight baseball, no blowout football scores here. They operated under the management of that famed fireball yeller Manny Acta, who can get tossed by the home plate umpire without even leaving the dugout. They even received a superb start, as John Lannan turned in the best outing of the season, going 6 1/3 innings and yielding only three hits and a run, striking out eight.

The problem came only when Washington had to bridge Lannan with the finish line. A combination of Julián Tavárez, Mike Hinckley and Joe Beimel covered the first five outs. But then came Hanrahan. One out into the ninth, protecting a 2-1 lead, the right-hander hung a slider to Cody Ross. The pitch landed one row behind the left field fence.

One inning later, Rivera, with one aboard, thought he had strike three on a cutter to Uggla. He didn't. He had already taken a step toward the dugout -- catcher Jesús Flores had taken even more -- but the battery had to return, and Florida pounded out two more singles, including an infield hit from Jeremy Hermida that knocked in the go-ahead run.

Asked later if the close pitch to Uggla threw him off, Rivera said: "Big time. I thought I had him. But he said ball, so what can I do?"

He could have argued, but Acta already tried that. Seeing what he believed was an unfair strike zone, Acta picked the bottom of the third to speak up. When Elijah Dukes struck out looking against Florida starter Ricky Nolasco, Acta expressed his distaste from the Washington dugout. Home plate umpire Tim Timmons turned around and, with one gesture, ejected Acta for just the second time in his career. Only then did Acta emerge on field for the requisite argument, all part of leaving the stage. Jim Riggleman took over from there.

"You're not supposed to argue balls and strikes, but that doesn't mean you can just stay quiet," Acta said. "I went and checked, and I thought the pitches were way off the plate. All I said was, 'I think that's too much.' You know how it is. Nowadays you can't even talk to them, and some of them even feel that when they throw people out, the more people they throw out, the [more] macho they are."

Washington's blown lead was particularly painful because of the earlier efforts to sustain it. Lannan, in front of 19,026, walked to the mound with a 10.00 ERA, the product of two sub-par starts. But here, he had the arsenal to lower it. He hummed through his outing with a rhythmic efficiency, throwing strikes, notching strikeouts, retiring hitters at such a pace that you almost forgot that the Marlins lead the National League in runs per game. His fastball traveled just as fast as necessary (usually 89 or 90 mph) and always right on point. He used it in the third to strike out Ross swinging. Then Wes Helms, swinging. Then Nolasco, swinging. By the time there was one out in the fourth, Lannan had struck out five of six and still hadn't allowed a hit.

"I executed my pitches a little more," Lannan said.

Only a solo home run in the fourth by John Baker interrupted his flow, but Washington quickly countered with a combination of hits from an unexpected source -- the bottom three hitters in the order and new lead-off man Anderson Hernández. With one out, Flores squeezed out an infield single and then scored on an Alberto González double into the left-center gap. Lannan came next, and responded with perhaps the best at bat of his career, a 10-pitch tug-of-war with Nolasco that bumped the righty's pitch count to 84. When the at-bat finally ended, Lannan grounded to short, advancing González 90 feet.

He also got a standing ovation.

With such a pitch count, Nolasco could only finish the fourth. But before he did, Washington scored its second run, taking the lead when Hernández bumped a single to left field.

But that was the end of Washington's scoring.

"You have to add on when you have the opportunity," Acta said. "It's a lot of pressure to come in and save the game by one run."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company