Astros Defeat Nationals in Series Finale, 5-0

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 2009

HOUSTON, July 12 -- During the 87 games that constituted the first half of their season, the Washington Nationals performed combat on conventional wisdom. They found a way to do almost anything that hadn't been done before, so long as it didn't improve their chances to win. They found a starter who threw four wild pitches in one game. They lost on a night when they hit five homers. They sustained such a shoddy pace that their manager, after wrapping up the first half with a seven-game, six-loss road trip, said, "We have played already better over the last month or so, so we're headed to a better direction."

There is only one way to observe the 2009 Nationals, and that is with all expectations suspended. They head nowhere that you think they'll head, and Sunday's 5-0 loss to Houston at Minute Maid Park reasserted that point. On a day when the Nationals fell to 26-61 (.299), nothing made sense. Their own starter, based on Manny Acta's description, was "overpowering." Houston's starter Brian Moehler, the 235-pound equivalent of a six-inning, four-run pitching line, gave up hit after hit. The Nationals had at least two base runners in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth innings. The Astros barely made a peep, until they sent Kazuo Matsui to the plate, where he homers once ever 78.96 plate appearances.

So naturally, every factor conspired against the Nationals. Jordan Zimmermann made one bad pitch in a dominant start, allowed a first-row homer to Matsui, and later rued, "I thought I did pretty well the whole day, and now it looks like I struggled all day."

Meantime, Washington's offense, which rolled for 13 runs the prior night, couldn't convert hits into scoring. In the third, the Nationals wasted a leadoff double from Wil Nieves, who went 4 for 4. In the sixth, they started with a Nick Johnson double and later had the bases loaded with one out. In the seventh, with Moehler (6 1/3 innings, no runs) finally knocked from the game, Washington again had the bases loaded with one out. And this time, with the middle of its order coming up. What happened? Ryan Zimmerman popped out to first in foul territory, and Adam Dunn grounded up the middle, right where the shortstop plays him on a shift.

"It's a funny, humbling game," Acta said. "This is the same club that scored all those runs yesterday. We just couldn't execute offensively today. We had runners on second with no outs, couldn't get them over, and then twice the bases loaded with one out and we couldn't get it done."

Those who worship at the altar of statistical analysis know something called the Run Expectancy Matrix. Using historical data, that chart explains a team's odds of scoring in any given situation. The average bases-loaded, one-out opportunity this season, for instance, had led to a 1.6-run inning. Then again, nothing about the Nationals follows form. Entering Sunday, major league teams had been shut out 146 times. In 139 of those instances, said team had seven or fewer hits. Only one team had 10 hits in a shutout. No team had more. The Nationals, with 11 hits against the Astros, set a new high mark. No team is better-suited to do so much good and pull out something lousy.

"When we struggle offensively it's not necessarily just hits," right fielder Josh Willingham said. "Today was one of those days when we struggled with runners on base. We had Moehler on the ropes but couldn't get a big hit or two to score four or five runs."

In the end, Houston got just enough offensive production from just enough unusual places. Though Zimmermann allowed an unearned run in the first (the byproduct of an Alberto González throwing error), he breezed until Matsui's three-run homer in the seventh, a poke to right-center.

The Astros added a final run in the eighth, when Tyler Clippard, appearing for just the third time this month, contributed one of the most outlandish moments of the season. After a walk to Lance Berkman and ground rule double by Carlos Lee, the Astros had runners on second and third with one out. Clippard was trying to intentionally walk Hunter Pence, a formality that generally doesn't require much in the way of execution. During his delivery, though, Clippard's cleat caught awkwardly on the front of the pitcher's mound. He flinched, took a sad tumble off the mound, and elected not to throw the ball.

Yes, a balk.

Berkman trotted in from third.

"My foot got caught in the dirt," Clippard said. "I wasn't expecting it. I probably shouldn't have held on to the ball. I should have just rolled it up there."

"Bizarre is a good name for it," Acta said. "I've never seen it before in my life. I've seen guys commit balks like that, but not while you're walking a guy intentionally."

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