By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009
PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 16 -- Out of nowhere on Wednesday, the Washington Nationals found themselves in a most unfortunate saga, pursuing a simple goal (scoring runs) and deterred by an inescapable problem (they could not).
The Nationals sustained this episodic failure -- 21 innings of scorelessness, until a ninth inning garbage time run -- despite many opportunities to do otherwise. Wednesday, they bunted into outs when there was no particular purpose for bunting. They hit into strange double plays. They hit into even stranger double plays. And when that ran its course, they hit into conventional double plays as well.
The rambling effort on Wednesday included nearly every conceivable form of inability, and as a result, the Nationals fell 6-1 against Philadelphia at Citizens Bank Park, one of their sorriest defeats of the year. They have scored one run total in the first two games of this series. After this one, they got a brief speech from interim manager Jim Riggleman, who began by referencing all the news accounts that refer to the team as "baseball's worst."
"When you make that many mistakes in a ballgame you are going to allow those things to be said," Riggleman later said, speaking to members of the media, "and we've got to be accountable for that."
Though chronic breakdowns have plagued Washington all season, the offensive difficulties -- at least when this extreme -- are something new. The Nationals rank ninth in the National League in runs and entered the night tied for fifth in batting average. But entering the ninth inning, they hadn't scored since the fifth inning of Sunday's game. Tuesday's complete game shutout from Cy Young winner Cliff Lee was a coherent defeat -- a great pitcher beating average hitting -- but this time around, Washington shouldered far more blame for its struggles.
The Nationals couldn't score in six innings against Joe Blanton; only two of the first 16 batters batted balls beyond the infield.
The mistakes proved costly. In the second game of this series, the Nationals hit into three double plays -- one that originated with a catch by the right fielder. They twice bunted into outs at third base. Though Jayson Werth's seventh-inning grand slam against Jason Bergmann turned a close game into an ugly final score, Washington never played like a team with a chance, showing an open disdain for heads-up plays.
The Nationals, in the first inning, enabled the Phillies to score their opening run when catcher Wil Nieves, with runners on first and third, threw to second to try to nail a stealing Ryan Howard. Nieves's throw was late, and Cristian Guzmán's tag was high, but still, the shortstop brandished his glove in the air, as if somehow appealing for an out, and he did so with such gusto that he didn't notice Chase Utley breaking for home. Guzmán never even threw back to Nieves, giving Utley an uncontested steal of home plate.
"I was just trying to throw him out to close out the inning," Nieves said. "Maybe I should have not thrown it."
Though Liván Hernández had another terrific start, breezing through six innings with just two runs allowed, Washington couldn't support him. Sometimes, the Nationals were victims of bad luck. More often, they were victimized by their own mistakes.
In the second, with runners on first and third, Hernández -- without receiving direction to do so -- dropped a sacrifice bunt just in front of home plate. Catcher Carlos Ruiz hopped to his feet, grabbed the ball and noticed Ian Desmond about 35 feet down the third base line. The two locked eyes, and Desmond was in trouble. He raced back to third, attempting a headfirst slide, but by then, third baseman Pedro Feliz was already applying the tag, nailing the lead runner and ruining the inning.
"I guess he decided that he was going to sacrifice the guy over," Desmond said. "It kind of caught me by surprise, to be honest with you."
In the sixth, Washington found yet another creative way to cost itself. This time, with one out and Desmond on second and Justin Maxwell on first, Nieves lofted a soft fly to right field -- lazy enough that the runners could have retreated, or at least made it close. But Maxwell started back to first too late, and right fielder Werth fired to first, finishing off a 9-3 double play.
"Tonight, we legitimately made a lot of mistakes, and it starts with me and the staff," Riggleman said. "If our players are making those kinds of mistakes then we've got to make sure we're coaching them better, managing them better, to not make those mistakes. Because that was a lot of bad things happening in that ballgame that we cannot allow to continue to happen."