By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Only the Nationals.
As if there were any doubt, last night confirmed what is happening with Washington's baseball franchise has turned into a theater of the absurd. Some nights, the Nationals cannot field the ball. Other nights, their bullpen fails. Then there are times like last night when it makes you wonder if this team is cursed.
In the bottom of the ninth inning, rain cascaded down on Nationals Park. Lightning crackled across the sky. With a simple wave, players, coaches and fans went scurrying for cover when officials announced a rain delay. The 2 hours 10 minutes that the Nationals sat in the clubhouse painfully delayed the inevitable.
With less than 100 fans in the stands, the Cincinnati Reds hung on for a 4-2 win over the Nationals in 12 innings. Johnny Gomes doubled to left field to score Jay Bruce, who led off the inning with a walk, from third base. And then Jerry Hairston singled to left to score Gomes. The game lasted 3 hours 34 minutes.
Since May 10, Washington is 5-24
But there was a sign of hope last night for Washington. Down by two runs, Elijah Dukes led off the ninth inning with a walk. Then the rain came. The players left the field, replaced by a tarp. And for a long time, nobody seemed quite sure what was happening. At one point, the grounds crew removed the tarp and drained water from the field. Then it reapplied the tarp.
When the delay ended, Josh Willingham walked. He represented the tying run. With one out, Josh Bard smacked a single into right field to score Dukes. The next batter, pinch-hitter Anderson Hernández hooked a single into center field to score Willingham and make the score 2-2. It was closer Francisco Cordero's first blown save since July 21, 2008.
"I thought that our guys never gave up and that says a lot that we were able to get two runs off Francisco Cordero," Manager Manny Acta said.
Of the Nationals' 32 home games this season, 10 have been delayed because of inclement weather. As if their misery on the field were not enough.
Before the game, Acta said he only experienced this type of barrage from the weather when he managed in a league in southern Florida. There, he said, it rained every summer afternoon at 4.
"This has been very unusual, according to people in this area," Acta said of the Washington region before last night's game. "It's been kind of silly."
The Nationals have grown accustomed to the rain. During a delay, players said, they try to stay occupied. Often, that means turning on the Weather Channel and looking up the forecast. Ron Villone listens to Metallica. Willie Harris might play a card game known as Pluck -- "It's like spades," he said -- in the clubhouse. Some players might even take a nap, if they think the delay will last long enough.
The refrain is the same during a delay: "When is it ever going to end?"
"That's the quote," Harris said. "Guys don't like rain delays."
Asked what is the toughest part about a rain delay, Harris said: "It's just the mental aspect of it that's pretty tough. Whatever pitcher you were facing before the rain delay, there's a good chance he's not coming back so you have to readjust your approach."
In this case, the delay provided some help. The Nationals were previously not able muster any offense. Reds starter Aaron Harang was brilliant. He threw 7 2/3 innings, allowing no runs and only five hits with two strikeouts and three walks. He had lost to last two starts, but looked every bit the ace last night.
The Reds got an early lead in the second inning, when Jay Bruce launched a two-run home run. It was Bruce's 15th home run of the season.
Just like that, Bruce snapped out of the 3-for-36 funk that had dogged him the previous 11 games. Just like that, Nationals starter Shairon Martis had succumbed to the type of pitching mistake that has pockmarked some of his outings this season. And just like that, Washington was down by two runs.
Other than the blip in the second inning, Martis was also exceptional. He worked quickly through the Cincinnati lineup, throwing 51 of his 81 pitches for strikes. In seven innings, he allowed only two runs on three hits.
But when the game was on the line, the starters' nights were long over. The Nationals had better luck against Cordero. But the game was decided by two Nationals relievers: Villone and Jason Bergmann.
Villone walked Bruce to start the 12th inning and then was issued an error when fell as he tried to throw out the next batter, Alex Gonzalez, who was on his way to first after a bunt attempt. Bruce advanced to third on a pass ball. Bergmann replaced Villone, but he allowed Cincinnati to scratch out the two go-ahead runs.
"We just couldn't finish the deal," Acta said. "And we ended up being on the losing end again."
It was another demoralizing loss after a very long, very wet and very wild night.