Monday's Late Game

Nationals' Hitters Can't Overcome Cabrera's Start in Loss to Giants

Josh Willingham rounds the bases after hitting a home run off San Francisco's Randy Johnson Monday night.
Josh Willingham rounds the bases after hitting a home run off San Francisco's Randy Johnson Monday night. (By Ben Margot -- Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO Reprinted from

-- Randy Johnson is different from Daniel Cabrera mainly because he is one inch taller, and also because he can pitch with professional decency. Monday's game between Johnson and Cabrera drew notice, initially, because it paired a 6-foot-10 lefty with a 6-9 righty -- the tallest pitching matchup in major league history. But well before the matchup ended, both players -- with opposite performances -- directed attention, instead, to the gap separating them. One keeps base runners to a minimum. The other does not.

San Francisco's 11-7 victory against the Washington Nationals at AT&T Park, highlighted by another monster night from Ryan Zimmerman, doubled mostly as a case study in contrasts. Granted, the comparison between Johnson and Cabrera is blasphemous; few needed the first pitch -- or the first wild pitch -- to understand that. But the future Hall of Famer, even as a 45-year-old cup of decaf intimidating hitters more with his reputation than his velocity, delivers a convincing reminder that, sometimes, wild pitchers can mature into accurate ones. That, sometimes, 27-year-olds can figure out how to pitch -- so long as you stick with them.

Cabrera, in his seventh start of the season, looked more like a pitcher running out of time. The Nationals are now 0-7 when he pitches. With career-worst velocity, he looks broken. These days, his outings are best used as fodder for a grim parlor game: Guess the wild pitch total, guess the walk total, guess the unearned run total (because, inexplicably, the Nationals always give him their very worst defense). As a bonus tiebreaker, you can try to guess the ugliest moment.

"I don't want to [expletive] talk to nobody," Cabrera (0-4) said while rushing from the clubhouse after this one.

If only the right-hander could escape jams in the same manner that he escapes the stadium. During a four-pitch span in the second inning, when San Francisco scored its first two runs, Cabrera threw a wild pitch and allowed back-to-back hits by Travis Ishikawa (a .188 hitter) and Johnson (who entered the night 0 for 10). In the fifth, Cabrera -- hard hit all night -- eliminated the base hits by eliminating the strikes. In fairness, the inning really unraveled after left fielder Josh Willingham overran a two-out Fred Lewis fly ball, which scored two and opened the door for more. But Cabrera couldn't recover and promptly walked the next four batters, a tortured merry-go-round that ended his night after 4 2/3 innings, with eight hits and eight runs -- just three earned.

"You've got to be able to put errors behind and pick up your teammates, and he just crumbled after that," Manager Manny Acta said. "This is major league baseball, this is the big leagues, and the difference between these kids and the kids in the minor leagues is the mental aspect of it and being consistent. You ought to be able to put those things behind you. I heard a man once say, 'If you don't want errors made behind you, you'll have to strike 27 guys out.' "

Since joining the Nationals this offseason, Cabrera has labored almost every time out, and his numbers reflect those struggles. Cabrera entered Monday averaging 6.67 walks per nine innings and 16.69 base runners per nine innings. In 29 2/3 innings, he had struck out just 10 batters -- or one more than Johnson struck out on Monday in five innings.

At this point, few remember that Johnson, early in his career, fit a similar wild-throwing profile. Three years running (1990-92), he led the American League in walks. He ranks third on baseball's all-time list in hit batsmen.

By watching Johnson pitch now, one realizes his evolution. The control problems are long gone. In fact, his accuracy has become a strength; in recent seasons, he's often averaged fewer than two walks per nine innings. Johnson no longer has the eye-popping fastball -- he'll hit the low 90s now, when the timing feels right -- but that only spotlights the craftsman who once hid under the hard-thrower's veil.

"He's a big man," Zimmerman said. "There's legs and arms and everything coming at you, and his slider is pretty good, like it looks like on TV. He threw well today. He even threw some change-ups, too."

Only Zimmerman, who finished the game 4 for 5 with two home runs (including a ninth-inning three-run shot), routinely solved Johnson. Against the Nationals, the lefty walked nobody. He didn't dominate, but he minimized mistakes. And yes, at this age, he makes them. He allowed three home runs -- to Josh Willingham, Ronnie Belliard and Zimmerman -- but all with nobody on base.

Soon after Zimmerman, who extended his hitting streak to 29 with a first-inning single, cranked his homer to left-center in the sixth, Johnson's night came to an end. He left to a warm ovation from the home crowd, which saw enough vintage Big Unit highlights to appreciate the show.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company