By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009
It is the bleakest form of theater, watching the 2009 Washington Nationals in their final days, seeing them slump and stumble and lose almost without exception. They lose even when they can't quite figure out why. In Sunday's 6-3, 10-inning defeat against the Atlanta Braves, they committed no single unpardonable sin, at least until extra innings, and still it ended with the familiar feeling -- another quiet clubhouse, another closer sitting at his locker.
For the Nationals, these are trying times. They are 51 games under .500, having lost 21 of 27 games. In that span, they're getting outscored by 2.5 runs per game. Their closer has an 11.57 ERA in September, their left fielder is 13 for his last 89, and their bullpen has allowed runs in 26 of its last 29 appearances. The foundation of their August surge to semi-respectability is gone. Mike MacDougal is throwing balls two feet out of the strike zone, Josh Willingham is slumping, Cristian Guzm?n is injured, Adam Dunn missed Sunday with overall bodily soreness and allergy problems, and almost every bullpen member but Tyler Clippard is unreliable.
Depleted and sputtering, the Nationals this weekend appeared well-suited only to guide Atlanta into October. Having won six in a row and 14 of their last 16, the Braves are 2 1/2 games back in the wild-card race. Atlanta has the deepest starting pitching in the National League; Sunday's starter, Derek Lowe, merely a 15-game winner, was perhaps the weakest pitcher Washington saw all weekend. Atlanta's starting lineup against Liv?n Hern?ndez featured eight hitters with double-digit home run totals. Most promising for the Braves, they finish their season at Turner Field with a four-game series against the very team they just thumped.
"We feel good about our chances," Chipper Jones said. "The Marlins are coming in a little down, obviously, and the Nationals aren't playing their best baseball. So it's right in front of us."
After the series ended, interim manager Jim Riggleman described "one that got away from us" -- "a real tough loss." Truth was, his team had done plenty right. They'd gotten another quality start from Hern?ndez (6 1/3 innings, three runs), and back-to-back first-inning homers from Ryan Zimmerman and Willingham. They got another solo shot in the fourth from Mike Morse, and even after the Braves tied the game in the seventh, Clippard snuffed out a runner-on-third, one-out jam, then pitched a scoreless eighth and ninth.
But even before this game headed into extra innings, the Nationals had done just enough to hurt their chances. Take the seventh inning, for instance, when Washington failed to score after a Willie Harris leadoff triple. Or take the fourth inning, when Willingham, merely by throwing to the wrong base after catching a flyball, allowing two runners to tag instead of one, erasing a double play possibility. (Sure enough, the next batter hits a perfect double play ball, and it led to just one out. Then Yunel Escobar drilled a two-run triple into the left field gap.)
"I'm not stupid; you can play a lot of close games and be a bad ballclub," Riggleman said. "But the difference between us and the other clubs is not that wide a gap. We just made some mistakes."
MacDougal, in his 10th-inning appearance, demonstrated plenty of them. Known for a fiendish fastball -- when he can control it, he's an all-star -- MacDougal again looked nothing like an all-star, issuing a one-out walk and then plunking Martin Prado with a 96 mph fastball. From there, the inning spun out of control. Jones dinked an infield single between the pitcher's mound and second. Brian McCann knocked in a run with a weak groundout. Omar Infante drove in two more with a solid single.
The Braves had a 6-3 lead.
And Atlanta's own closer, Rafael Soriano, retired the side in the bottom of the 10th on seven pitches.
MacDougal, in the minutes after the loss, attempted to describe what happened. He struggled to finish his sentences, jumping from pitch to pitch, play to play. The ugly fragments.
"The ball back to me from Chipper I don't know how I missed it. I screwed up I should have had that play and been out of the inning"
He kept moving in reverse-chronological order, talking about the hit batsman ("I hit Prado, that's where I screwed up") and the one-out walk. ("I just -- I just think those pitches were close. They could have gone either way. You know, I tried to make the pitches.")
"It's been kind of unfortunate," he finally said. "Not good."