By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; D01
SAN DIEGO -- The Washington Nationals could attribute their latest loss to misfortune, because the final, corrosive moments were built on rotten luck. But before the bad bounce and the questionable call, before skulking off the field late Sunday afternoon as the San Diego Padres celebrated an extra-inning victory, the Nationals could have ensured none of it happened by simply scoring a run.
The Nationals lost, 3-2, to the Padres when Nick Hundley, the only batter closer Matt Capps faced, culminated a sudden, fluky rally with a walk-off single in the 11th inning. The Nationals made the run possible by not scoring many themselves. The Nationals' offense remained missing aside from two home runs by Ryan Zimmerman, including the 100th of his career, as they dropped below .500, back to 25-26, and lost their second straight series.
The Nationals started their 10-game road trip with six games against the Padres and San Francisco Giants, two of the top four pitching staffs, by ERA, in the majors. Against the elite pitching, their offense continued its slide and forced them to play with little margin for error. Any bad break carried the potential to lose the game -- all four losses on the trip have come by one or two runs, all with the Nationals scoring four or fewer runs. On Sunday, before 28,591 at Petco Park, it caught up with them again.
"We're pretty good about turning the page," second baseman Adam Kennedy said. "We just need to get these bats going. It's unfortunate when one play keeps deciding the game. Our offense just needs to keep plugging away."
The pivotal rally materialized after an odd play. With two outs in the 11th, Sean Burnett was cruising, having escaped a two-on, one-out jam in the 10th. Lance Zawadzki shot a ball up the middle. Burnett stuck his glove out and deflected the ball to his right -- toward the spot Kennedy had been standing in. "Just bad luck," Burnett said.
Kennedy had broken toward second base. Once the ball ricocheted off Burnett, Kennedy pivoted back to where he had come from and scooped the ball. While on the run, he fired the ball wide of Adam Dunn at first and into the Padres' dugout, sending Zawadzki to second. Kennedy has been one of the steadiest defensive players on the Nationals, but he followed up an error that led to a three-run home run on Saturday with another ill-timed mistake.
"My only chance was to try to throw it as hard as I can on the run," Kennedy said. "Just tried my only option."
With Zawadzki at second, Padres Manager Bud Black inserted Hundley, the same culprit who laced the three-run blast the night before. Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman summoned closer Capps.
Hundley fell behind 1-2, and Capps fired a fastball on the outside corner that appeared to be a strike. Hundley watched. Capps and catcher Wil Nieves both thought the inning had ended. Home plate umpire Bob Davidson called ball two.
"I thought I made a good pitch," Capps said. "It was one of those that could have gone either way."
Since Hundley had watched the fastball, Capps figured he had been anticipating an offspeed pitch. "Let's take another shot at it, see if we can catch him off-guard," he thought. He threw the same fastball, but this time it stayed farther inside -- "too aggressive," Capps said. Hundley ripped the ball into left, and Zawadzki scored with ease.
"Bottom line, I execute that last pitch there and throw it where I want it go, we're still playing," Capps said. "Hopefully we score a run in the top of the 12th or 13th and we're all smiling right now."
Instead, they quietly packed for four games against Houston. Nationals starting pitchers surrendered just three earned runs over the past two games; on Sunday Liván Hernández allowed two in 6 1/3 innings. The Nationals still lost both games. In May, they have scored 4.1 runs per game, and in 15 of 28 games they've scored three runs or fewer.
The season has nearly reached its one-third mark, and the Nationals still insist they are capable of more offense. "There's still more there," Riggleman said.
On Sunday, Zimmerman provided the only offense. He blasted two home runs, both with no one on base. The first, his 100th, came in the first inning. The second tied the game in the sixth. From that point on, the Nationals advanced only one runner past first base, Willie Harris in the eighth inning.
They will head to Houston for four games against the 17-33 Astros, a respite from one of the most difficult schedules in the league. After three games against the first-place Padres, the Nationals have played 36 of 51 games against teams with a .500 record or better, third most in the majors. They'll have to hope a change of scenery can spark a slumbering offense.
"All of us are happy with where we're at right now," Zimmerman said. "We're playing good baseball. We're playing good teams. It's time to kind of take that next step. We're not playing bad by giving games away. We need to start winning some of the close ones, get on a roll and go from there."