By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2009
NEW YORK, May 27 -- Enough things had gone wrong for the Washington Nationals on Wednesday night even before people started watching the lowlights twice. Their left fielder failed to catch a fly ball, their second baseman forgot to cover first base on a bunt and their catcher let a pop-up bounce off his chest protector. These were just among the flip-book blunders from a night when the Nationals, yet again, made a convincing case for their ability to repeat almost any fundamental breakdown.
But this latest loss -- a 7-4 defeat against the Mets at Citi Field -- played out like a bad sequel for reasons beyond that. By now, 33 losses into their season, the Nationals have proved themselves capable of replicating not just the results, but the sinister details. Same as Monday, a controversial game-changing home run was subjected to umpire review. Same as Monday, the Nationals were responsible for allowing, not hitting, said home run. Same as Monday, the Nationals didn't like the call.
And, same as Monday, the Nationals didn't have the wherewithal to overcome it. Their third loss in a row dropped them 20 games under .500. Even if they play .500 ball the rest of the way, they'll finish with a 71-91 record.
After this game, though, Washington's complaints about the instant replay decision were all the more assertive.
The basic gist of the team's complaints: Baseball requires clear-cut evidence to overturn a call on the field. Here, even the umpires admitted the call was close.
"It was a very difficult call," crew chief Larry Vanover said.
The play in question came in the bottom of the sixth, with the game tied at 3. After Gary Sheffield led off the inning by drawing a walk against Washington starter Jordan Zimmermann, Daniel Murphy cranked a ball toward the upper deck in right field. The ball landed on the field, then bounced against a Modell's sign atop the right field wall. And if that's all that happened, Murphy had no homer.
One complication, though, and it stemmed from Citi Field's architecture: An overhang from the second deck hangs about eight feet over the field, almost like an umbrella for the warning track. If Murphy's ball scraped the front side of that deck -- adorned with a yellow Subway billboard ($5 footlongs) -- on the way down, then Murphy had a homer.
When the ball fell, Adam Dunn, the right fielder, picked it up and fired a relay to second baseman Ronnie Belliard. A confused Sheffield, who had hesitated on the basepaths, was running home at full speed. Belliard's throw to catcher Wil Nieves clipped Sheffield by a step -- the first out of the inning. Murphy stood on third.
Dunn later said the ball was five feet shy of the billboard, and added: "I didn't think there was any way possible that ball could have been a homer. What would have been interesting -- I probably should have caught that ball. Then I would have liked to see what the verdict would have been then."
Three umpires, including Vanover, retreated to the review booth. There, they studied feeds relayed from both teams by way of a central New York office. The three made the decision by consensus, Vanover said.
"When you look at the replay, you can see the ball does disappear into the yellow sign and it does change direction," Vanover said. "That's how we made the call."
After a five-minute delay, they reemerged on the field and signaled a home run. Sheffield's out transformed into a run. Murphy trotted home, with his fourth home run of the year -- certainly his longest by duration, if not by distance. The Mets had a 5-3 lead.
"It was a huge blow," Zimmermann said.
"Well, something has to be done, because this was supposed to be to help make the right call, help the umpires, and it's supposed to be a clear-cut home run," Manager Manny Acta said. "If it is so inconclusive like the last couple of days, the call shouldn't be changed. Like today, they either need to get better feeds, more feeds, or something. I am not a geometry expert, but that [Subway sign] hangs over the warning track, the upper deck. And there's no explanation for that ball hitting the upper deck, coming down, and then bouncing forward [to] the Modell's sign."
That Washington had even stayed close in this game was a surprise, given the usual reel of fielding misplays, and given the fact that New York started with Johan Santana on the mound.
Santana, who entered with an NL-best 1.50 ERA, lasted six innings but was not up to his usual level. He threw 120 pitches. He walked more on Wednesday (six) than in his previous four starts this month. In fact, he walked four in one inning. Including Zimmermann, the opposing pitcher. And Cristian Guzmán, who swings at any ball with seams. But just as often as Santana fought himself, he also carved up the Nationals. He had 11 strikeouts, and twice he struck out the side.
In the fourth, with the Nationals down 3-0, Dunn briefly helped Washington back into the game with his 16th home run. It traveled far enough to count for No. 17, too. Picture what you get when a potential Hall of Famer's down-the-middle, once-a-season-mistake fastball meets the perfect cut of a 6-foot-6 guy who knows a home run pitch when he sees one. Dunn's blast roared toward right field, still soaring up as it crossed the fence, 378 feet away. The ball finally landed beyond all the outfield signage, near a replica bridge where fans can buy clam chowder. The official estimate for distance: 465 feet.