Nationals Go Quietly Against San Diego

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

SAN DIEGO, Sept. 1 -- Like few other stadiums in baseball, Petco Park imposes its personality. And the place has a quirky one. It likes low-scoring games and exasperated hitters. It is perfectly within reason for two nondescript pitchers -- one with a 5.22 ERA, the other with a 4.85 ERA -- to go back and forth trading their Greg Maddux imitations. If Petco had its way, games would end once the first team scored.

The Nationals have played two games at Petco. The park isn't solely responsible for abducting Washington's offense, but it's aided the disappearance. Managing just four hits on Tuesday, the Nationals lost to the Padres, 4-1 -- a familiar Petco-style defeat with stunted offense and a few head-shaking lost opportunities. In the first two games of this series, the Nationals have scored a total of two runs. They're hitting just .194. Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham are a combined 0 for 15 with eight strikeouts. Hittable pitchers -- Tim Stauffer on Monday, Clayton Richard on Tuesday -- have ceased to be hittable.

On this road trip, the Nationals are 2-6, having lost five in a row. Given the depths of their offense and the venue where they're trying to revive it, the little miscues have become increasingly costly. Tuesday, base runner Elijah Dukes was picked off one pitch before a Josh Bard home run. Couple that with a few hit-robbing catches in the San Diego outfield, and Washington failed to score more than two runs for the fourth time in five games.

ESPN's "Park Factor," which compares home and road stats, thus eliminating any distortion from the lineup that plays there, calls Petco the pitcher-friendliest park in baseball. By a wide margin. Petco's center field wall extends across the middle third of the outfield, with no curve, like the horizon line. This year, the Padres are batting .216 at home, scoring 3.4 runs per game. They're hitting .268, scoring 4.4 runs per game, on the road. San Diego's ERA at home: 3.69. On the road: 5.78.

Tuesday, the Nationals faced Richard, one of the pitchers acquired by San Diego from the White Sox in the Jake Peavy trade. No surprise, the 25-year-old Richard has shown most of his upside in one locale. (He entered the day 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA at Petco.) Against Richard, Washington succeeded only in making rapid outs. Through three innings, the left-hander had thrown just 38 pitches and given up a single hit. Washington's first extra base hit of the game -- a muscular Ryan Zimmerman shot to right-center -- would have been a homer in almost any other stadium in baseball; here, Zimmerman's shot smacked the bottom of a chain-link fence about 400 feet away, leaving him on second, where he remained the rest of the inning.

"We're facing good pitching," Zimmerman said. "We've hit some balls hard, too. It's just one of those times where it seems like everything we hit gets caught. You've got to give their guys credit, too. We've just got to keep battling through it."

Only in the seventh did Washington finally interfere with Richard's evening plans -- though it came with some regret. With two outs, Bard turned on an inside slider, smacking it off a casino advertisement overhanging the left field fence. That solo homer drew the Nationals within a 2-1 deficit. But it should have tied the game. Earlier in Bard's at bat, Dukes, who had walked, was picked off first and eliminated in a rundown.

"You don't know that you're gonna get that home run if we weren't picked off," Riggleman said. "But you can't get picked off either way. The issue is getting picked off, it's not the fact that we got a home run afterwards. We're equally at fault if we get picked off whether we hit the home run next or not."

Granted, the Nationals had only kept the game close to that point because of their own journeyman-turned-hurler. Making his ninth big league start, Martin notched just his second quality start. Just 3-2/3 innings into this outing, Martin had already struck out five, setting a new career high. Though San Diego's initial run in the second came as a result of some square hitting -- a Kevin Kouzmanoff double and a Will Venable RBI single -- its second run was the result of two bunts, a Martin fielding error, and a sac fly. Not exactly power baseball.

Martin pitched into the seventh inning, but not for long. The first batter of the frame was pinch-hitter Oscar Salazar. The first pitch he saw was an 85 mph slider, which he blasted beyond the left field fence. It was Martin's final pitch of the night.

"It was a cutter away and I just spun it right down the middle," Martin said. "It was a bad pitch."

Reliever Tyler Clippard was roughed up for a final run in the eighth, giving San Diego closer Heath Bell a three-run cushion with which to work.

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