By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 28, 2009
BALTIMORE, June 27 -- Situational hitting is the blanket term used to describe what plagued the Washington Nationals on Saturday night. How does one identify poor situational hitting? Try finding a game where a single team grounds into four double plays, or goes 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position, or twice loads the bases with no outs and comes away with a combined two runs.
But sometimes, as in the case of a 6-3 loss against Baltimore at Camden Yards, poor situational hitting is the side-effect of a more widespread ailment. Sometimes, poor situational hitting is merely the result of poor hitters. And how does one identify poor hitters? Try finding a right fielder who has almost 100 plate appearances since early May -- and as many RBI during that span as Manny Ramírez, who is finishing out a 50-game suspension. Or try finding a second baseman who has four extra-base hits this season in 83 at-bats. Better yet: Try finding a lineup that features both players, back-to-back.
In the middle game of this Beltway Series, the Washington Nationals walked away believing they should have scored seven runs -- heck, maybe eight or nine. Good teams, after all, pounce all over a pitcher like Jeremy Guthrie, who spent much of the first inning making a bold case for a spot on the Nationals' payroll. Guthrie, making his 16th start of the season, barely made it out of the inning. He allowed back-to-back hits, then went into pure wild-man mode. He walked Ryan Zimmerman on five pitches. He walked Adam Dunn on five pitches. One out later, he walked Josh Bard, too, and 39,633 could hear the wheels coming off. Washington was up 2-0, and Baltimore already had its bullpen activated.
Then -- halt.
Ronnie Belliard, the aforementioned second baseman, came up with the bases loaded and one out. With the count full, with Guthrie's neck straight under the guillotine, Belliard cracked a grounder to short. A 6-4-3 double play. The inning was over. The momentum shifted.
"I think at least we should have scored four runs that inning," Manager Manny Acta said.
That lost opportunity, by itself, didn't determine the game. But it set the tone. Guthrie recovered from that 39-pitch first inning with a toiling but adequate final four innings. Meantime, Washington starter Shairon Martis didn't manage even one clean inning. Baltimore finally took the lead, jumping ahead 4-3, with some two-out hitting -- yup, situational hitting -- in the fourth. That's when Baltimore rookie Nolan Reimold, with runners on first and third and two outs, pounced on a 1-1 change-up.
From the moment the ball was airborne, soaring toward deep left field, outfielder Josh Willingham had no sight of it. His legs froze. He kept looking up, trying to find the ball. He mimed an expression of helplessness (hands out, palms open), and everybody at Camden Yards waited for the ball to kerplunk.
It dropped one row beyond the seven-foot wall in left.
Reimold had a three-run homer, and Baltimore had a 4-3 lead.
"I just never saw it," Willingham said. "When a ball is hit really high in the twilight, it's just hard to pick up. But it wouldn't have mattered."
Washington had chances to get back into the game, the Nationals' lineup -- armed with the slumping Belliard and the offensively mute Austin Kearns -- had a special proclivity for rally-killing. Though Kearns roped an RBI single in the fourth, breaking an astonishing streak of 97 plate appearances without an RBI, his next turn, in the top of the sixth, was more indicative.
In that inning, the Nationals, working against reliever Brian Bass, loaded the bases with no outs. Orioles Manager Dave Trembley called on Matt Albers to escape the jam. Albers had this much working for him: Belliard and Kearns were due up. Belliard grounded to third, yielding a force out at home. Then, Kearns, who entered the game with an .091 slugging percentage in June, grounded into a 6-4-3 double play.
Following the game, Kearns played down any relief about getting his first RBI since May 7, instead saying, "I would have rather had a win.
He then added: "I'm just battling. That's about it. Just trying to do something when I get in there. Just trying to have good at-bats."