Cardinals Score 5 in Ninth to Top Nationals, 9-4

St. Louis's Rick Ankiel strokes an RBI double off Nationals reliever Julián Tavárez to break a 4-4 tie in the ninth.
St. Louis's Rick Ankiel strokes an RBI double off Nationals reliever Julián Tavárez to break a 4-4 tie in the ninth. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009

Washington Nationals pitchers threw 173 baseballs in the general direction of home plate last night. During a 3-hour, 18-minute insult to accuracy, Washington's pitchers walked 11 batters, pegged two and threw four wild pitches. All of 53 percent of their pitches went for strikes. Among the many that didn't, some bounced 10 feet in front of home plate, like John Stockton bounce passes. One sailed behind Albert Pujols. One actually bounced through a batter's legs, a hockey shot through the five-hole.

Finding a reason why the Nationals lost to St. Louis, 9-4, at Nationals Park was far easier than finding the strike zone. Washington's starter, Daniel Cabrera, walked five and threw as many wild pitches -- four -- as Greg Maddux threw from 1999 to 2001. St. Louis broke a ninth-inning tie after Julián Tavárez walked the leadoff man. A close game devolved into a brutal boo-fest when, later in the inning, Tavárez walked Joe Thurston and hit Jason LaRue with a pitch. Both ended up scoring without the help of a single hard-hit ball.

"They just walked themselves into trouble, they walked themselves into losing the ballgame," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said. "Walks allowed [the Cardinals] to tie. Walks allowed them to take the lead. I mean, they didn't even hit the ball hard in the last inning they ended up scoring five runs. I mean, we walked [11] guys today. It's unacceptable."

No matter where the Nationals look for bullpen help, they find only problems. In the seventh, the first reliever of the night, Mike Hinckley, faced two batters. He walked one, which helped St. Louis tie the game at 4. One inning later, Kip Wells walked two more batters -- though they were stranded on second and third. Then Tavárez came on for the ninth. He faced six batters, allowing two hits, walking two, and hitting one. Only the sixth Washington pitcher of the night, Joel Hanrahan, didn't walk anybody -- but he balked in a run before even throwing a pitch.

"We ended up losing the game because of the walks," Tavárez said.

All night, Washington defied odds just by keeping the game close. The lineup did just enough damage against St. Louis pitcher Mitchell Boggs, scoring its first two by way of a Ryan Zimmerman first-inning home run -- which extended his team-record hitting streak to 19 games -- and later adding two more in the sixth thanks to a cycle of production from the bottom half of the order. Somehow, at that point, the Nationals were ahead 4-3. And Cabrera was in line for an improbable win.

Nowadays, Cabrera's starts come with a painful predictability, so long as you're not trying to guess where his next pitch will go. Always, he walks a few too many. Always, he throws at least a few pitches that crash-land about a dozen feet short of the catcher's mitt. Often, he falls behind hitters and pays for it. But there's another element to Cabrera's outings, which excuses Washington's willingness to keep using the right-hander every fifth day: Despite his shortcomings -- despite himself -- Cabrera is getting by.

The full Daniel Cabrera experience blends spastic ineptitude with overriding decency. Yesterday, Cabrera created an instant mess. He walked the second hitter on four pitches. He threw three of four balls to the third hitter, Pujols, who happens to be baseball's best hitter even without a 3-1 advantage. Pujols greeted the next pitch -- a 91 mph fastball on the outside half -- by drilling it over the left-center fence.

St. Louis's early 2-0 edge appeared poised to grow, because Cabrera couldn't locate the strike zone. He walked four of the first 12 hitters. He threw three wild pitches among his first 29 pitches. Still, Cabrera kept himself together. Even without his best velocity, even with a few more walks mixed in, the Cardinals scored just once more in his final five innings.

Cabrera retired the side on six pitches in the fourth. He needed just six more pitches to retire the side in the sixth. His final line included five walks and just two strikeouts, but Cabrera ended up yielding just three earned runs -- a quality start.

A decisive lack of quality followed.

Asked after the game how he could fix his bullpen's problems, Acta shrugged his shoulders and guessed, "Plan Z?"

"It's embarrassing," he added soon after. "This is not Philadelphia, where a guy might be scared of throwing a pitch over the plate and a guy hitting it out. This is a pretty fair ballpark, and it's not gonna work.

"It's top to bottom. They just are walking themselves into trouble. Over and over and over and over. Walking guys after 0-2 counts, walking guys in the bottom of the order. You shouldn't be afraid. You're pitching for a last-place team in a half-empty stadium. What can be intimidating right now?"

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