By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
With one pitch -- a 78-mph slider left up in the zone -- a small yet significant portion of the optimism that had enveloped Nationals Park all night evaporated. Colorado leadoff hitter Carlos González roped reliever Sean Burnett's first offering of the eighth inning over the right field fence, and with that, any energy or momentum Washington had in Tuesday night's 4-3 loss to the Rockies was zapped.
To that point, the Nationals' bullpen had held steady, their starter had not combusted and their defense had been solid. Washingtonwas competitive with the National League wild-card leaders on a day when the organization and its fan base had reason to rejoice.
But in the end, the Nationals could manage only so much good news for one day. In the District, optimism has its limits.
"The key for us is to keep our team in the game," Burnett said. "You know, if we're one or two runs down, it's only one swing of the bat for some of these guys in the middle of that lineup that can easily change a ballgame. Unfortunately we didn't get it done tonight and I didn't execute a good pitch, but the key for us is just to stay in the game and let the offense win it."
In the bottom of the ninth, a Nationals offense that had been stifled all night by Colorado starter Ubaldo Jiménez -- "As far as the quality of stuff they were throwing up there, nobody has thrown like that kid right there did today," Nationals interim manager Jim Riggleman said -- finally showed signs of revival.
Consecutive singles by Nyjer Morgan and Cristian Guzmán scored a run -- cutting Washington's deficit to one -- and put runners on first and third with two outs and franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman up to bat. But Zimmerman lined out to left field to end the game.
"We had our chances, we got on, we had a couple opportunities, we had some great at-bats," Riggleman said. But the Nationals' offensive production dried up, making matters more precarious for starting pitcher Craig Stammen and the bullpen.
Entering the game, Washington's relievers had posted a 3.41 ERA in 31 games since the all-star break, much improved from the 5.71 mark it tallied in the season's first half. The progress of the team's relief pitchers served as one reason to believe that its record (43-75) was not necessarily emblematic of its talent level.
Setbacks were inevitable, though the one suffered Tuesday was far from seismic. The bullpen allowed two runs on a pair of solo homers.
Even the weather cooperated despite the dark clouds that hovered near the ballpark. Eighteen times this season, a Nationals game has been interrupted, postponed or canceled because of rain.
But less than 24 hours after the Nationals signed Strasburg, the right-handed pitcher expected to claim a spot in Washington's rotation as soon as next spring, the team -- and the 18,192 fans in attendance -- were spared. Lightning crackled and rain fell intermittently, but serious precipitation never materialized.
Stammen faced similar circumstances -- dancing around base runners and unfavorable pitch counts on occasion to try to keep Colorado in check. The right-hander allowed two runs on four hits and two walks in five and a third innings. One of his blemishes was a solo shot to center by Brad Hawpe that Riggleman said would not have left the park had the wind not been at its back.
"On a night when the wind was blowing out, we couldn't get any balls elevated on him and take advantage and take a ball out of the ballpark," Riggleman said.
Jiménez's final line -- eight innings, two runs, seven hits and a walk -- indicated several opportunities lost by a Washington offense that has proven resurgent over the latter part of the season.
"When you have a guy like [Jiménez]," said first baseman Adam Dunn, who went 0 for 4, "getting him up against the ropes early in the game like that and you have chances to kind of pad your lead a little bit and you don't do it, that's our fault."