By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010; D01
HOUSTON -- On Wednesday night, the Washington Nationals squandered several chances to beat the Houston Astros, a chain of missed opportunities that facilitated a more grand missed opportunity. The Nationals arrived here with a record under .500 and with four games against the National League's worst team to assert themselves as a contender. The best they can do now is break even.
The Nationals ensured they'll head back to Washington with a losing record after their 5-1 loss to the Astros before 26,736 at Minute Maid Park. Washington dropped further into last place in the rugged NL East and fell two games below .500. The team stayed afloat for the first third of the season while playing one of the toughest schedules in the majors. Finally playing a team from the league's bottom tier, it will have to win Thursday's matinee in order to split the series with Houston.
"Absolutely, tomorrow is a big game," left fielder Josh Willingham said. "We need to come out and win it and even this series up."
The Nationals on Thursday will finish a 10-game road trip and a brutal stretch of 20 road games in 26 days. If they lose, they'll have dropped three straight to the 19-34 Astros and would finish the trip a meager 3-7.
"I think tomorrow is must-win," reliever Tyler Walker said. "You don't ever want to fly home on a loss."
The Nationals gave themselves chances on Wednesday. They stranded 10 base runners and left the bases loaded in consecutive innings, which they also did Tuesday in the eighth and ninth innings of an 8-7 loss. They struck out 13 times, bringing their two-day total to 25. Ian Desmond committed three errors, two on one play, which led to three unearned runs. The Nationals entered Wednesday night batting .232 with two outs and runners in scoring position, and again they couldn't find a clutch hit -- they went 1 for 6 with runners in scoring position.
"We're getting a great effort, it's just not happening right now," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "I guess I look at the glass as half-full -- how many times we've had runners out there. If we continue to do that at that pace, we're going to score a lot of runs. We're going to get our hits there. We're just in a rut right now. It's kind of building on guys."
Nyjer Morgan, who went 5 for 9 with a walk in his first two games batting second in the order, reverted back to leadoff on Wednesday because Wandy Rodriguez, a lefty, was on the mound. He led off the game with a single to right. He stole second, moved to third on a wild pitch and scored on Dunn's double to right. Right away, the Nationals were rolling.
For the rest of the night, they sputtered each time they created a scoring opportunity. In the fourth, with the bases loaded and out, Wil Nieves struck out, leaving the bases loaded for starting pitcher John Lannan, who entered batting .053. He struck out.
The Nationals loaded the bases again the very next inning -- even after Morgan gave the Astros an out by getting picked off. With two outs, Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman and Willingham all reached base, Willingham's a break coming on a catcher's interference call that negated a strikeout. Up came Desmond, one of the most successful Nationals in clutch spots.
He smoked a game-tying single on Tuesday, and he was 9 for 27 with runners in scoring position. But Wednesday he could only muster a groundball to short. After Desmond's groundout, the Nationals had left the bases loaded in four of their past seven innings.
"We had several chances today," Willingham said. "That's the way the game goes. We need to get a few hits with runners in scoring position."
Lannan allowed three earned runs on eight hits and two walks in 6 1/3 innings, making one crucial mistake, a two-run home run to Carlos Lee in the third. In the sixth, the Astros added on after a rough play for Desmond. With Hunter Pence on second and Pedro Feliz on first, Tommy Manzella grounded to Adam Dunn, who fired to Desmond covering second. Desmond never stepped on second by whipping a rushed throw, which eluded Lannan.
Umpires often give an out for a fielder near the base, but "you've got to touch the base for the guy to be out," Desmond said. Desmond was given two errors on the play while Feliz went to third and Pence scored on the throw, an unearned run.
In the next inning, Desmond had a chance to atone. With a man on first, Lance Berkman hit a slow roller at him. Desmond figured if he stayed back, he could still turn a double play. Waiting, though, allowed the ball to "eat me up," Desmond said. "It's one of those do-or-dies. You either got to go get it and you look like a fool or you wait back and look like a fool." With two outs, Pence tripled to right-center, scoring two more unearned runs.
Desmond upped his major-league leading error total to 14. Despite the mistakes, Desmond entered Wednesday's game with the fourth best UZR/150 -- an advanced metric compiled by FanGraphs.com that measures a shortstop's overall effectiveness -- in the majors. By FanGraphs' calculations, Desmond had the best range in the league among shortstops.
"He's a young shortstop," Riggleman said. "We assume there's going to be errors made."
Before Desmond's miscues, the Nationals could have taken control early in the game. In the end, they didn't have a chance.