By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
PHILADELPHIA, April 28 -- One of the more suitable symbols for the Washington Nationals is, as of today, no longer a National. That's because Alberto González is heading back to the minor leagues. So long as he remains there, his claim on the major league errors title probably won't last.
Both for González and his (former) team, squandered opportunities have led to a ghastly April. The 26-year-old shortstop received carte blanche playing time after starter Cristian Guzmán pulled his left hamstring; he played himself out of the big leagues, though, by committing six errors, including one more Tuesday night that led to three unearned runs. The Nationals, meantime, have squandered any opportunity that might help them slow their freefall in the standings. They are now 4-15, and running short of branches to grab hold of.
For the Nationals, Tuesday's 7-1 loss against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park represented a chance for progress only until the same errors, the same pitching mistakes, and another barrage of Philadelphia home runs flattened their hopes. Keen to recover from the previous night's bullpen meltdown, the Nationals failed to even keep this one close.
Those in the visiting clubhouse felt mystified. Starter John Lannan couldn't explain the three home runs he allowed, especially the first of two to Chase Utley, which came on an 0-2 pitch. Manager Manny Acta lamented that his lineup remained silent, even when Philadelphia ace Cole Hamels departed in the fifth with a sprained left ankle. Nobody, meantime, could explain what happened to González -- a prospect known for his fielding, who now is tied for the MLB lead in errors. With Guzmán ready to come off the disabled list, the Nationals, following the game, optioned González to Class AAA Syracuse.
"I don't know what happened," González said. "I'm still working."
"He is a very good fielder," Acta said, "but he's had a rough time, especially the last homestand we had in D.C. And tonight again, it cost us."
By the end of the night, the Nationals faced the latest numerical low point of their season: Now 11 games under .500, they face a point where their odds for recovery become all the more dubious. They need a win today to avoid a series sweep and a 1-5 road trip. They also need a win to equal their 20-game mark at this point in 2008.
Lannan, the team's still winless Opening Day starter, could have helped matters, and for the first two innings, he was getting ahead of hitters and finishing them off with smart, low breaking balls. The Phillies were pounding grounders. Lannan, like Hamels, looked sharp.
All of a sudden, though, the trajectory of Philadelphia's hits changed. So did Washington's chances in this game. With one on and one out in the third, Lannan jumped ahead 0-2 against Utley. Back in July 2007, Lannan hit Utley in the wrist with a pitch, breaking the second baseman's hand. But Lannan had more immediate history on his mind: Utley, at that moment, was 5 for 11 lifetime against Washington's pitcher. Lannan wanted to keep the ball out of the strike zone.
"I told myself to just bury it in the dirt," Lannan said.
Instead, Lannan threw it barely below the belt, just on the inside half of the plate, and Utley buried it into the right field seats. Before that inning ended, Philadelphia jumped ahead comfortably. González, hustling to his right, failed to cleanly field a Jayson Werth ground ball in the third base hole. The next hitter, Raúl Ibáñez, walked on four pitches. Then Pedro Feliz smashed the second home run of the inning. All three runs that scored on the homer were unearned.
Following the game, Acta called his team's defense "horrendous," and suggested that the third inning -- especially the three unearned runs -- "sucked the energy out of us."
"With the team that we have we can't afford to be giving away more than 27 outs on an everyday basis," Acta said.
Down 5-0, the Nationals never created drama for a comeback. Not even after Hamels, trying to field a Lannan bunt, skidded in front of the pitcher's mound and dropped to the ground, his left ankle folding in half. Hamels exited after that play in place of Chad Durbin, rushed into action from the bullpen. He allowed only one hit -- Adam Dunn's massive second-deck home run -- in the next 3 2/3 innings.
"Durbin was the key today," Acta said. "Hamels got hurt early in the game, and Chad came in and just shut us down. We couldn't take advantage of Hamels being out of the game that early."