Another Unusual Loss for the Washington Nationals

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009

Washington shortstop Alex Cintrón's chance for redemption came in the top of the ninth last night with one out, one on and zeroes spread across the Nationals Park scoreboard. Reliever Garrett Mock, whose own opportunity for absolution came a few moments later, snagged a screamer hit up the middle and tossed it to Cintrón for the force at second.

At that moment, Cintrón said, you have time only to react. There's no thinking involved when a base runner takes aim at your shins and you still have to manage an accurate throw to first base. Cintrón had grounded into an inning-ending double play with a runner in scoring position in the fifth and saw a moment for atonement at hand.

But his throw was not accurate; it was wide enough to pull Nick Johnson off the bag. Three consecutive walks later, Atlanta scored the game's lone run, capping a 1-0 Braves win and an opening homestand that was peculiar for the Nationals in multiple ways.

Nationals Park hosted a curious collection of incidents over the past nine days, including three blown saves this past weekend against Florida and two one-run wins, both of which were delayed by rain. A pair of games went to extra innings, which only added to the eccentricity.

"It was tough because we had an opportunity to erase the first week of the season by having a great homestand," Manager Manny Acta said. "It's over now, but we wasted those three games against [Florida]. We won this series, which is nice, but still, we had an opportunity to take the three games and then that way it would completely erase that first week and get everybody behind us. But we didn't do it."

After opening the season with six straight road losses, the Nationals returned to the District in hopes that a refreshingly familiar venue would bring about some measure of positive change. In some ways, it did. The starting pitching dramatically improved over the past seven games, a stretch furthered last night by lefty John Lannan.

Though he admitted he "got away with some pitches early," Lannan threw masterfully for most of the night. Lannan departed after seven innings, having allowed five hits, no runs and two walks. He tallied four strikeouts.

Lannan took the hill for a Washington squad that had won two straight and was riding the first wave of confidence that had come its way this season. But the Nationals' homestand included off-the-field incidents that spanned each edge of the spectrum, as well.

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the organization's franchise player, signed a five-year contract extension the day before Jordan Zimmermann, the organization's top prospect, made his major league debut. Zimmermann's introduction to the big leagues came one week after the death of Philadelphia broadcaster Harry Kalas, who died in the stadium's press box, a sudden conclusion to a Hall of Fame career.

"We finished [the homestand] strong," Lannan said. "We had some tough games against the Marlins. It started off kind of weird with the death of Harry Kalas, but just we finished strong. Now we have the off day, and we go off to New York and Philly strong."

However, the Nationals' poor situational hitting drew Acta's ire once again. Lannan estimated the team should be 6-8, and an inability to score runs contributed to the fact Washington instead is 3-11.

In the bottom of the seventh, left fielder Josh Willingham drilled a leadoff double to the left field corner and advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt by Ronnie Belliard. But then Jesús Flores grounded out and pinch hitter Austin Kearns followed with a pop fly that never left the infield.

Mike Hinckley came on in relief of Mock in the ninth, but walked the only two batters he faced, one of which brought home the winning run for Atlanta. Acta said the errant throw Cintrón made "came back to haunt us," but no more than the missed scoring opportunities or the late-game pitching.

"We struggled at the end, but we shouldn't put ourselves in that position," Acta said. "We had twice, runner on third with less than two outs, and our situational hitting just continues to bury us, to hurt us. You win ballgames scoring runs, and we haven't been doing that."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company