By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 2009
ATLANTA -- Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
The Washington Nationals, should they wish to finish their season with at least sporadic moments of pleasure, will wisely avoid familiarity at all costs. At this point, the familiar is bad. It includes squalid relief pitching, bases-loaded walks, untimely hitting, home runs surrendered at inopportune moments. It includes many, many losses.
Before landing in Atlanta to begin this two-game series, the Nationals had largely disposed of their last-place heritage. Familiar, dismal baseball -- and Kip Wells, for that matter -- had been discarded on the bottom shelves of the garage.
Well, at least until this series.
On Wednesday evening at Turner Field, the Nationals, dropping their second in a row, brushed the dust off their worst habits, falling to the Braves, 6-2, on a night when their offense grounded into three double plays, their bullpen allowed four late-inning runs, interim manager Jim Riggleman twice made pitching changes in an interminable eighth, and a pair of pitchers walked in runs with the bases loaded.
It all played like grainy footage from a flashback sequence, as a close game -- the teams were deadlocked at 2 entering the bottom of the seventh -- devolved into what reliever Sean Burnett described as "embarrassing."
This was like April, only in August. Only three times before Wednesday -- including once on opening day -- did Washington pitchers allow four home runs. But here, Atlanta slugged four solo homers, including two in the second against rookie Craig Stammen and a critical Adam LaRoche blast in the seventh against Jorge Sosa that gave the Braves the lead. That was LaRoche's second of the night.
In the eighth, as Atlanta ran away with it, Martin Prado hit the final homer of the evening, a shot off Burnett that only began the insult. Later that inning, both Burnett (one inning, three runs) and Jason Bergmann walked runners with the bases loaded.
"We played good baseball. I let a one-run [game] slip away and turn into a joke," Burnett said. "But we played a great game tonight. We had great starting pitching again, and I kind of blew a good game. We were still in it, and with this team and this offense one swing of the bat can change it. But when you give up that many runs in one inning it kind of takes the wind out of our sails."
While Atlanta's hitters provided the pyrotechnics, Washington's hitters bounced into three double plays against starter Derek Lowe, pounding his sinker into the ground as if on command. By the middle innings, Lowe moved through the lineup with an almost hypnotic pace. In each of the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings, he did not face more than three hitters.
"Lowe just kept getting ground balls," Riggleman said. "That's what he is known for."
But the game stayed close, because Stammen rebounded from three previous dreadful starts. Coming off that stretch -- 9 1/3 innings, 23 hits, a .511 batting average against and a 15.43 ERA -- Stammen briefly looked destined for another rough outing, giving up homers to Garret Anderson and LaRoche in the second. That damage, in a twisted way, actually helped him.
"I stopped trying to baby it," he said, citing the homers as the turning point, "and I just said, you know what, I'm tired of this, so I just started going after them."
Stammen settled down. He retired the side in three of the next four innings. He kept the ball low. He worked quickly. He walked only one hitter, and by the end of the sixth inning he had thrown just 79 pitches.
The Nationals' bats awakened, at least momentarily, as they clawed back to tie the game. With two outs in the seventh against Lowe, Elijah Dukes pounded a double off the left-center field wall, missing a homer by several feet. After a Josh Bard walk, Ronnie Belliard singled on the ground to left, and Dukes, running from second, just beat the throw home, giving Washington its second run. The Nationals had the chance to take the lead, too. They couldn't. After Willie Harris walked to load the bases, Nyjer Morgan grounded out to first.
From there, the game stayed tied only minutes longer. Sosa, replacing Stammen for the seventh, offered LaRoche an outside slider "that stayed right there and acted as a change-up," according to Riggleman. LaRoche smeared it down the right field line, and Atlanta had a lead that would only grow.