Washington Nationals Lose to Florida Marlins, 9-6, in 11 Innings

A disappointed Ryan Zimmerman leaves the dugout after the Nationals lost in extra innings.
A disappointed Ryan Zimmerman leaves the dugout after the Nationals lost in extra innings. (By Alex Brandon -- Associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

Unable to preserve wins, unable to say much on his behalf, Washington Nationals pitcher Joel Hanrahan sat on a stool in the home clubhouse, which was mostly empty and -- because of Hanrahan -- entirely quiet.

The closer held a spit cup in his hand and waited. When he saw a few media members approach, he rose. He said he "obviously blew the game." He said his teammates didn't deserve this. He described the pitch that ruined his day, a fastball that wandered down the middle and then soared into the seats on a drive hit by Jeremy Hermida. Hanrahan called the whole experience "pretty disappointing," because his team kept building leads and he kept disenabling them. And a 1-9 record feels heavy when much of it sits atop one player's shoulders.

Both for Hanrahan and his team, yesterday's 11-inning, 9-6 loss against the Florida Marlins at Nationals Park redoubled the agony. In a span of 18 hours and one weekend series, Hanrahan has now twice blown saves, both times allowing home runs and both times sending the games into extra innings, where both times the team with ninth-inning momentum prevailed.

It's tempting to suggest that the losses -- first Friday night, then yesterday afternoon -- were carbon copies, but that's not entirely true. Blow a save one night, especially in a one-run game, and you're entitled to the Closer 101 talk: It happens to everybody; you just forget about it, do it right the next time. But blow a save again, this time after being handed a three-run lead, and you're less protected by the platitudes of a difficult job. Indeed, after Hanrahan allowed three runs in the ninth, turning a 6-3 lead into a 6-6 here-we-go-again, Manager Manny Acta called it "very disappointing and discouraging. It's deflating. There is nothing worse in the game than to be winning for eight innings, do everything right, and then lose it in the ninth."

Hanrahan, who inherited the closer's role in the middle of last season, still has the job. That's in part because of his short track record from 2008, when he converted nine of 13 save opportunities. Last year, his two-pitch repertoire -- hard slider, harder fastball -- found a match with the quick work of ninth innings. Washington, without a backup plan, gave Hanrahan the job for 2009.

As a result, the Nationals will continue to feed their leads to Hanrahan and live with the consequences. Moving their top reliever, eighth-inning specialist Joe Beimel, into the closer's role might cover one problem, but it will open another. And others? Julián Tavárez is needed in long relief. Others are unproven. Washington needs Hanrahan because it has nobody else.

"He's going to continue to go out there and do it," Acta said. "Whether he can do it or not, we'll find out."

"There's a concern in the bullpen," acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. "But Hanrahan is our guy. He's got a good arm. He's got good stuff. He's a young closer, and you've got to go through growing pains. But if I looked you in the face and said I'm not concerned about the bullpen -- I can't say that. We've put ourselves in position to win several games here and we haven't done it. But Joel gets the ball tomorrow in the ninth inning with the lead."

When Hanrahan took the mound yesterday, he had the coziest sort of save situation -- a three-run lead, perfect for confidence restoration. Much earlier in the afternoon, the Nationals had ripped open a 5-0 lead, helped by Austin Kearns's first-inning grand slam. Seven solid innings from starter Scott Olsen (six hits, three runs, two earned) sustained the edge. Three more outs, and Washington could exhale.

Though Hanrahan started the inning with a strikeout, what happened next girded the 19,864 at Nationals Park for drama. Pinch hitter Alfredo Amézaga singled to center, then trotted to second on a wild pitch. The next batter, Ross Gload, lined a single to left, scoring Amézaga. That made it 6-4. Following another strikeout, Hanrahan found himself facing Hermida.

With the count 1-1, Hanrahan aimed for an outside fastball.

The fastball swerved in -- "I basically put it on a T," Hanrahan said -- and Hermida belted a drive to center, all low velocity, giving it the trajectory of a pro golfer's tee shot. Like the game-tying homer one night earlier, it settled just a row behind the wall. Hanrahan watched the ball disappear and then dropped his head.

Tied instead of celebrating, the Nationals couldn't regroup, and in the 11th, Hermida launched a three-run home run against the struggling Wil Ledezma. The Nationals, then, could savor the effort but not the reward. They had scored six runs in the first two innings against Florida's Josh Johnson, the erstwhile National League ERA leader. They had snapped out of a team-wide bases loaded funk (1 for 16 with eight strikeouts) with the Kearns grand slam. They had received Olsen's best start of the year.

"When you play so hard and do everything so right for eight innings, and it takes just one inning to take everything away from you, the energy goes down a little," Acta said. "I mean [it's] deflating as a team. Shoulda-coulda doesn't take you very far in this game, but we should have won this series already."

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