Nationals lose to Astros, 6-4, after ninth-inning error by Guzman

It was another painful loss for the Nats and Ryan Zimmerman, who was plunked by Astros reliever Brandon Lyon in the eighth inning.
It was another painful loss for the Nats and Ryan Zimmerman, who was plunked by Astros reliever Brandon Lyon in the eighth inning. (David J. Phillip/associated Press)
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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010

HOUSTON -- Matt Capps watched the ball fly toward right field, the last out, and he knew the Washington Nationals, finally, were going home. He marched toward his catcher for an embrace. Their brutal road trip would at least have a happy ending.

Capps had taken a couple of steps when he heard the crowd at Minute Maid Park erupt. He turned back toward the outfield. He saw the ball on the ground. The road trip had not ended for the Nationals. It was only saving the worst for last.

On their flight home Thursday evening, the Nationals, after their gut-wrenching, 6-4 loss to the lowly Houston Astros, likely could only wonder how they lost three straight games to the team with the worst record in the National League. For the second time in three days, Washington scored twice in the ninth to take a one-run lead. For the second time, it lost, this time on a walk-off home run by Carlos Lee one batter after an excruciating gaffe by inexperienced right fielder Cristian Guzmán on what would have been the final out of the game.

"A must-win," reliever Tyler Walker had called Thursday's game. The Nationals could have salvaged a series split and a respectable record on a 10-day road trip, the end of a span of 20 road games in 26 games. Instead, in front of 21,814 at Minute Maid Park, the Nationals limped to 3-7 road swing and reached a new low point, three games under .500 for the first time.

Six of those losses came by one or two runs. Three ended with the winning run -- unearned each time -- crossing the plate. One ended after a 32-year-old infielder with 30 innings of outfield experience lost a fly ball in the lights.

"It seems like all 10 days, really, on the road, anything that could go wrong for us has gone wrong for us," Capps said. "We've just got to go out and take the luck out of it and just beat guys. That's what we haven't been doing -- I haven't been doing."

Lee's game-ending homer was "the one mistake I made [and it] was the last one of the game," Capps said. Lee crushed the first pitch he saw over the left field fence, ending an unreal bottom of the ninth.

The Nationals had the game won when, with two outs and Michael Bourn on second base, Lance Berkman lined an 0-1 slider to right field, directly at Guzmán. Guzmán had come to spring training as the likely starting shortstop. When Ian Desmond emerged, the Nationals asked Guzmán to try second base and, for the first time in his life, right field.

Guzmán had handled his new duties without complaint and without committing any mistake. He had played well enough that Manager Jim Riggleman chose to leave him in the game instead of inserting Michael Morse on a double-switch. Guzmán, Riggleman figured, was faster and had more experience in right this year -- 30 2/3 innings to Morse's 20 2/3 .

And so when Berkman's liner steamed toward Guzmán, the Nationals assumed they had won. Guzmán knelt awkwardly and strained his eyes -- he could not see the ball in the stadium's lights. The ball bounded off his glove, his third error of the game after making two at shortstop.

"It's a tough play for a normal outfielder," Guzmán said. "More for me. To catch the ball in the middle of the light, it's not easy."

"You can't do anything if you lose a ball in the lights," outfielder Willie Harris said. "I know the feeling. It's one of the worst feelings you can ever have, when you see the ball off the bat and then you lose it. He's doing everything he can. That play made him look like a bad outfielder. He never saw it. There's nothing you can do. I know the feeling."

A sudden, stunning rally in the top of the ninth gave the Nationals a chance.

With two outs and the bases empty, pinch hitter Morse, Harris and Guzmán smacked three consecutive hits -- single up the middle, triple to left that bounced away from Lee, another single. The condensed rally scored two runs and, for a moment, erased an otherwise listless performance.

The Nationals squandered chances on offense and botched plays on defense. They extended their major league high in errors to 50, having made 14 in their past nine games. In those nine games, they allowed 41 runs, 17 of them unearned. They stranded seven men on base and scored four runs despite four hits. In their first 10 games without catcher Iván Rodríguez, who is on the disabled list with a bad back, they played their least productive baseball this season.

"It just seems like it's been many days of this, where we're just not cashing in," Riggleman said. "What could have been a miserable day for them turned out to be a miserable day for us."

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