Nick Johnson's Error Proves Costly as Rays Beat Nationals, 4-3

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 13, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., June 12 -- For all their drawbacks, the Washington Nationals warrant at least one superlative. With a .271 winning percentage, and with an ability to lose with about the regularity that a newspaper lands on your front steps, they are the most predictable outfit in their sport. Documentation supports this. So does their record (now 16-43). So does the usual volume in their post-game clubhouse (silent).

Still, sometimes Washington's predictability reaches absurd levels. Friday night's 4-3 loss against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field reset the boundary for inconceivable losses, because it involved the team's best fielder, its best reliever and an unthreatening pinch-hitter. The fielder made an error. The relief pitcher let up the decisive run. The pinch hitter poked a homer into the very first row of left field.

Guess which two of those characters play for the Nationals.

With the game tied at 3 in the bottom of the eighth, the Nationals were let down by those whose recent histories don't involve many letdowns. With two outs, Ron Villone was pitching to Gabe Kapler. This seemed like good news, because Villone, at that moment, had allowed just one run over 18 1/3 innings, spanning 21 games. Even before the game, Manager Manny Acta called the left-hander a "big part of stabilizing our bullpen."

Around the same time, hours before the game, Kapler had been out on the field, ordered to take some swings during a simulated game pitched by Scott Kazmir. Perhaps that seems like an undignified duty for a 33-year-old veteran. But Kapler, this year, has played himself onto the fringes of Tampa Bay's roster.

As he dug in against Villone, he was hitting .173 (14 for 81). He had just one homer.

Based on the 1-1 pitch Villone threw, Kapler's average should have ticked to .171. Kapler flopped a little popup into the wide foul territory near first base. There, Nick Johnson tried to settle under it. Instead, he looked like he was skating on ice -- first sliding about three steps too far, then trying at the last second to reverse. The ball bounced to the turf, an error. Kapler was still alive.

"I just missed it," Johnson said. "Plain and simple. Saw it the whole way. Didn't catch it."

By then -- even if you knew Villone's nearly perfect ERA, even if you knew Kapler's meek numbers -- you had a sense of the doom. Next pitch, Kapler swung at a fastball. Up it went, toward left field. It had just enough distance to land in the seats -- a go-ahead solo homer. Lower the air conditioning, and it's an inning-ending out.

"No excuses," Villone said. "I lost that game."

One batter later, Villone was pulled. He exited the game, seething, neck muscles taught, talking to himself.

"When you lose a game and continue to lose games and find ways to lose games -- and it's everybody in here -- you can't stomach it anymore," he said later. "There's nothing to appreciate about how you played, or somebody played well. You can't even think about that. You just think about why we lost, we lost, and somebody's got to do something about it. Take a big, giant leap."

On this night, the Nationals, with an uncharacteristic burst of offense, had built an early lead. Four of the first five Washington hitters, starting the top of the first, smacked hits against Tampa Bay starter Matt Garza. Cristian Guzmán and Johnson started with singles. After a Ryan Zimmerman strikeout, the cold Adam Dunn and the cold Elijah Dukes started to crack the ice. Dunn lofted an RBI single over second, then Dukes ripped a double to left.

There: Offense. Three runs. Proof it can be done. Much-needed, too, for a team that had scored two or fewer in 12 of 20 previous games.

But that's where the encouraging news stopped.

By the end of the sixth inning, Washington had slipped into a 3-3 tie. All the usual maladies shared credit. The offense, after its one-inning reversal, returned to slump mode, failing to score again against the laboring Garza (116 pitches in 5 2/3 innings). Some defensive imperfections, and a few gifted base runners from Washington pitcher Craig Stammen, also contributed to Tampa's comeback. In the second, catcher Josh Bard couldn't get the glove down fast enough to apply a tag on a sliding Ben Zobrist, trying to beat Dukes's laser-straight throw from right. In the third, Tampa Bay runners stole three bases -- and B.J. Upton created the Rays' second run when he stole third and Bard's throw took a 747 flight path into left field. Then, in the sixth, Tampa's Carlos Peña, who reached on a hit against Stammen, tied the game when Gabe Gross pounded a chopper to first.

Johnson, playing even with the base to hold a runner, couldn't handle a short hop, and the ball skipped into right.

"We just, again, didn't do the little things to win the ballgame," Acta said. "We keep giving outs away, and giving them 30 outs instead of 27. And we can't afford to do that."

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