By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009
ST. LOUIS, Aug. 29 -- For as long as baseballs have been pitched, the men swinging at them have talked about the difficulty of their jobs. Long ago the whole task of hitting was reduced to a nine-word chestnut -- the hardest thing to do is hit a baseball -- and that statement has passed through decades largely uncontested, or at least it did until the 2009 Washington Nationals assembled their pitching staff.
The Nationals, almost by rule, do not strike players out. No team in baseball gets fewer Ks from its starters, a collection of pitch-to-contact soft-tossers who rely on control and sink. This style can work. John Lannan proves as much with almost every start. Indeed, Washington pitching coach Steve McCatty advocates for the pitch-to-contact approach; better to get a one-pitch groundout, the thinking goes, than a six-pitch strikeout.
Any team that gets so few strikeouts, though, must be underpinned by solid defense and good control. Errors and walks -- no-nos on any team -- hurt the Nationals even more. Saturday night's 9-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium reminded why. A three-run homer that boosted the Cardinals to an early lead would have only accounted for two runs, had Craig Stammen not walked the previous batter. And the three-run homer that shot St. Louis ahead 7-2, all but ending the game, wouldn't have even happened if shortstop Cristian Guzmán hadn't booted a simple groundball one at-bat earlier. Walks and errors, as a joined force, turned a close game into a blowout.
"I mean, and we've played good baseball," interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "We've been catching the ball good and playing solid. But we're going to have to do that if we're not going to strike people out."
The Cardinals entered the game hot but chilly. They'd won eight of 11, but were hitting just .220 in that span, scoring 3.3 runs per game. Stammen was feeling charitable, though. He walked two in the second -- the first sign of sub-par control -- but pitched his way out of it. In the third, after a Brendan Ryan double, he walked Albert Pujols, placing two on for Matt Holliday. Busch didn't flood with camera flashes as Stammen delivered his 0-0 pitch -- those came during the prior at-bat, with 44,028 captivated by Sir Albert -- but Holliday put on the show. He cracked the inside fastball into the left field bullpen. St. Louis had a 3-1 lead.
"It was a fastball," Stammen explained. "About two inches away from the spot where I got him the first time."
St. Louis's lead grew in the fifth, Stammen's final inning, when the Cardinals put up four unearned runs. The frame should have ended when, with two on, Stammen forced Ryan Ludwick to bounce to short. Guzmán was there; he hardly needed to move. Pujols, running from second, jumped away from the ball just before it reached Guzmán -- perhaps a distraction -- but the play was entirely routine. Still, the ball bounced off his glove and into center. Pujols rounded third and scored, giving St. Louis a 4-2 edge and keeping the inning alive.
"Even Guzy has made enough plays for me this year that I'm not really worried about the one mistake that he makes," Stammen said. "So, big deal. Move on. The runner probably got in his way. It was kind of like an overspin hop, and he just got caught in between."
There was no surprise about what came next. Stammen was pulled, done after 4 2/3 innings, replaced by Ron Villone. The left-handed reliever's first batter was Colby Rasmus, and they battled. At one point, the center fielder fouled off four of five pitches. But the eighth pitch of the at-bat proved costly. Villone placed a 90 mph fastball down the middle, and Rasmus blasted it 444 feet.
Washington's problems, on this night, extended beyond an error and some wildness. But those issues served as fitting shorthand for the sure-fire ways that Washington can lose. Right now, the Nationals rely on a pitch-to-contact style more than any team in baseball. The team's starters this year have combined for 411 strikeouts, fewest in baseball. With Ross Detwiler in the minors and Jordan Zimmermann on the disabled list and Stephen Strasburg merely trying on jogging shorts in Florida, the Nationals have only one starter -- Garrett Mock -- with strikeout stuff.
Sort all qualifying major league starters by "contact percentage" -- the percentage of opposing batters' swings that result in contact -- and Washington has three of the top eight in baseball. Lannan's contact percentage is 89.1, highest in the majors. Stammen (86.9) and Liván Hernández (86.9) are just several spots behind.
"They're good pitchers to play behind because they throw strikes," Nationals utility man Pete Orr said.