By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 2009
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., June 13 -- There is a difference between defeats and losses. For months now, the Nationals have lived with defeats. They've been through 44 of them, counting the most recent. Only Saturday, however, did they deal with a loss. Early that morning, around 2 a.m., Jon Willingham, 27, younger brother of outfielder Josh Willingham, died in a car accident back home in Florence, Ala. Josh Willingham went home for his brother's funeral. Washington played a baseball game without him.
Even before the Nationals took the field for what became an 8-3 defeat against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field, they said little and kept quiet. It felt like a defeat, only worse. Several, including Adam Dunn, knew about Willingham's loss before arriving at the park. Manager Manny Acta closed the clubhouse doors and told everybody else. He reminded his players to call their family members and express their love, "because it can go fast."
Before leaving the clubhouse to take afternoon batting practice, a somber Dunn, chewing a drinking straw, said only this about the game: "You don't even worry about the game. Your heart and everything goes out to Josh and his family. Yeah, I don't know. I can't even put that in words, when something like your brother, that unexpected."
The game itself only compounded a painful day. For the second straight night, the Nationals relinquished an early lead. When it was over, it hardly mattered that Ryan Zimmerman, again driving balls up the middle as he did during his hitting streak, had clobbered a 430-foot first-inning homer to straightaway center. It hardly mattered that pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, making his first start since June 3 because of some brief elbow soreness, passed the full inspection, going five innings, striking out six, and giving up only a Carlos Peña home run.
None of it mattered, because of what happened in the sixth, after Zimmermann was pulled with 92 pitches.
Acta called on his bullpen to protect a 2-1 lead. Instead, they incinerated it. Reliever Jason Bergmann faced five batters. Every one of them scored, and the beating became almost rhythmic, as 30,586 cowbell-ringing fans rose with the rally. Evan Longoria singled. Peña, a left-handed pull hitter who gets the full infield shift, dropped a bunt down the third-base line. That put two on for No. 5 hitter Ben Zobrist, who yanked the first pitch several rows into the right field seats, giving Tampa a 4-2 lead.
It kept growing. Bergmann walked Pat Burrell, then gave up another homer to Gabe Gross. Bergmann was replaced by Jesús Colome, who gave up two more runs. By the time the inning was over, the Nationals trailed 8-2.
"Yeah, they were all sinkers," Bergmann (0-1) said. "The home runs were sinkers. It was a pitch I wasn't on top of today."
Acta, speaking after the game, said his team had been emotionally ready for the game. "It was [hard], but I don't think this is the first time that a team goes through emotions like this," he said. "They guys were ready to play. We just couldn't execute when we had to."
On bereavement leave, Willingham will miss three to seven days. His younger brother, according to reports, had been trying to elude police through the downtown streets of Florence when his car crashed.
Willingham will attend his brother's funeral today. In the meantime, the Nationals, in need of a replacement outfielder, have added Corey Patterson, formerly with Class AAA Syracuse, to the 40-man roster. They also have an updated sense of what is bearable, and what is not.
"It is just that when some people think you have it rough in life, this comes and slaps you in the face," Acta said. "Hey, you know, some people have it worse than you have right now."