Miscues Hurt Nats Against Santana, Mets

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 25, 2009

NEW YORK, April 24 -- To beat Johan Santana, at least on his best days, you need near-flawlessness. Pitchers with 0.70 ERAs don't leave much margin between themselves and perfection. And for as long as Santana remains on his early-season tear, seemingly using every outing to hammer his statistics toward the vanishing point, even excellence might not trump him.

On Friday night at Citi Field, the Washington Nationals lost to Santana's Mets, 4-3, and the gap between them was fairly explicable. The Nationals made just a few mistakes, while Santana tolerated almost none. Sure, the Nationals kept it close, but such low-scoring games are always governed by the details. Those details are driving Washington's 3-12 start. Those details are what's made Santana a two-time Cy Young winner.

"When a guy like that is on his game like he was tonight, he's one of the toughest if not the toughest guy in the game," Adam Dunn said. "He had all his stuff working tonight."

From the earliest stages in this series opener, Santana flashed the warning signal. He was hot as a branding iron, and Citi Field's 40,522 sensed it by the 11th pitch. The crowd stood. Santana threw a tumbling breaking ball to Ryan Zimmerman. Like that, he struck out the side in the first.

On such nights, a team facing Santana can win with top-notch starting pitching, clean fielding and just a little timely hitting. Washington received a quality start from Scott Olsen (six innings, nine hits, two earned runs), but defensive lapses and more poor situational hitting proved costly. Though the Nationals used a Nick Johnson homer in the sixth to prick Santana's scoreless streak at 17 and a two-run Jesús Flores homer in the ninth to spike the last outs with drama, they also did just enough of the things they couldn't afford.

They couldn't afford, for instance, what happened in the sixth, Santana's final inning, when Elijah Dukes (strikeout), Austin Kearns (strikeout) and Flores (pop-up) all failed to drive in a tying run on second base. They couldn't afford two similar outfield misplays -- one from Dukes, one from Kearns -- that turned singles into triples. And they especially couldn't afford the wild bullpen work that followed Olsen's departure. In the bottom of the eighth, Kip Wells walked in a run. One inning earlier, Jason Bergmann, while walking three, threw strikes on seven of 22 pitches.

"It's now time for our defense to step it up and our bullpen to do the job," Manager Manny Acta said.

Before the game, Acta called Olsen the key. To contend with Santana, Washington's own lefty needed to dazzle. While Olsen was good enough, he received little help. Start with the third inning, when New York's Carlos Beltrán, after a leadoff hit, bolted a liner to center. Dukes, in center, stuttered for a second, then charged late, trying to make a shoestring catch. At the moment when the ball reached the player, Dukes's glove was about five inches off the grass. The ball skipped right underneath it. By the time right fielder Austin Kearns tracked it down toward the center field wall, New York had taken a 1-0 lead, and Beltran was on third.

In the sixth, the Mets scored because of a similar play; this time, Fernando Tatis sliced the ball to right. Kearns dived when he should have just let the ball drop. A would-be single rolled past Kearns and into the corner, giving the Mets a leadoff triple, which they converted into another run with a Daniel Murphy single.

"It's just poor defensive play right now," Acta said. "I really like the way that Kearns goes about his business, but he knows better than that, and that was one of the mistakes that really cost us."

Santana went six innings, striking out 10 and walking one. Following his strike-out-the-side first, Santana repeated the act in the second inning -- twice recovering from 3-1 counts. Only when No. 8 hitter Alberto González popped up in the third did the Mets record their first putout. In the fifth inning, Washington advanced a runner beyond first base for the first time.

When Santana exited, having thrown 104 pitches (78 strikes), three Mets relievers held Washington scoreless until the ninth. That's when New York's closer, offseason Christmas present Francisco Rodriguez, served up the Flores home run that made things interesting. However, a succession of middle infielders -- shortstop González, pinch hitter Alex Cintrón, and second baseman Anderson Hernández -- were next at bat in the one-run game. They went down in order.

"The losing is frustrating. It's not something individually," Olsen said. "I just tried to go out and do my best, and Santana outdid me. It happens."

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