By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; D01
HOUSTON -- Matt Capps had one foot off the mound, his hand pointing toward third base, ready to clench into a pumping fist. All of the Washington Nationals' fielders took one step toward the dugout. They all thought they had won, that they had survived, and they looked at the third base umpire for confirmation. Bill Hohn raised his hands -- ball.
"I was pretty shocked," Capps said afterward.
On the very next pitch, the game really did end. Lance Berkman poked the game-winning hit into left field, the Houston Astros handing the Nationals an 8-7 heartbreaker Tuesday night before 25,249 at Minute Maid Park. The Nationals had taken the lead with two runs in the ninth, only for Capps to surrender two unearned runs in the bottom of the inning thanks to one rare error, one bad pitch and one dubious call.
Players dressed quietly and left quickly afterward, leaving the clubhouse hushed aside from a few players still grumbling to one another about ball two to Berkman, 20 minutes after the fact. The Nationals had dropped below .500 again, having lost to the Nationl League's worst team. Capps looked around the silent, mostly empty room and said, "It shouldn't be like this in here."
The Nationals believed they should have never given the umpires a chance to play such an important factor -- they knew they had several chances, many of them afforded by dismal play by the Astros, to seal the game. But since the umpires became a factor, the Nationals believed they had been robbed of a victory.
Zimmerman stood a few feet from Hohn -- the umpire whom the league reprimanded earlier in the day for his actions Monday in ejecting Roy Oswalt -- when he ruled Berkman had checked his swing.
"Yeah, he swung," Zimmerman said. "It's over with now, but I think we should have won that game."
Zimmerman, who rarely reveals raw emotion, was reminded such pointed criticism of an umpire might draw a fine from the league. "It's worth it," he said.
The Nationals trailed by four runs after third the inning thanks to another early implosion by starter Craig Stammen. But they positioned themselves for their first victory of the season after trailing after the eighth innings when rookies Ian Desmond and Roger Bernadina delivered game-tying and go-ahead singles.
Zimmerman may have been so steamed afterward because, as so rarely happens, he contributed directly to his team's downfall. Pedro Feliz led off the ninth with a bullet groundball at third base. Zimmerman, a Gold Glove third baseman last season, tried to field the ball from the side, and it skipped under his glove.
"It's a bad play by me," Zimmerman said. "It happens to everyone, but unfortunately it happened then. I took a step back, and I thought it was going to hop up and it stayed down. That's a play I expect myself to make. When you let your teammates down, it's frustrating."
Kevin Cash bunted Feliz to second. Pinch hitter Cory Sullivan drilled a deep fly ball to left. "The one pitch that I want back," Capps said. "If I get that lower, he grounds out to short." Instead, the ball hit the wall. The Nationals caught a break when Feliz, tagging, was held at third base.
Capps intentionally walked Michael Bourn to load the bases. Typically undeterred by a hopeless situation, Capps induced a chopper to second, Cristian Guzmán made a charging play and throw home to nab Feliz.
Up came Berkman. Capps got ahead, 1-2, and threw a fastball that started over the outside and moved further away from Berkman. He offered at the pitch, but did not commit. Berkman knew it would be a close call. Hohn sided with the Astros.
Capps, for the second time in his last two appearances, though he had the game won on one pitch, only to lose it on the next. On Sunday in San Diego, he gave up a game-winning single after thinking he had strike three called.
"It's frustrating," Capps said. "You can't put it in an umpire's hands. Those guys are pretty good. You go back and look at it, they get more right than they get wrong. It's frustrating. I made a good pitch there. I made a good pitch the other night, too. It just didn't go my way. The bottom line, I've got to go out, trust my stuff and just beat them. I haven't done that the last couple times."
On the next pitch, Capps threw the same outside fastball just off the outside corner. Berkman reached and floated a single down the left field line. The Nationals walked off the field, angry at the umps and also themselves. Even as they overcame their deficit, they squandered chances. In the eighth inning, they had the bases loaded and one run already in with one out, but two of their 13 strikeouts ended the inning.
"Hate to see the game end like that, but there were opportunities throughout the game that we had," Desmond said. "We could have put up more runs. There were times we could have made better pitches. It didn't have to end like that."
Stammen put the Nationals behind by surrendering three runs in the first, the start to allowing five runs on nine hits in five innings. The opening outburst raised Stammen's first-inning ERA this year to 11.45 ERA in his 11 starts. Even before Tuesday night's debacle, opponents in the first inning had batted .400 with an .884 OPS against Stammen. "It's getting a little bit frustrating," he said.
In the end, nothing was more frustrating to the Nationals than losing after Berkman's check swing.
"I say this all the time," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "It's just a philosophical thing. For me, a check swing is one of those calls in the game that there's very little consistency on it. Nobody really knows what it is, what it isn't. If you check-swing, to me, that means the pitcher beat the hitter. You know? If there's a gray [area], it should be a strike. There's a way to take a strike, and it's not in the form of a check swing. It works that way for both clubs. Tonight, I think it burned us.
"As far as I was concerned, we had the strikeout at the end."