By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010; D07
On a day when one Washington pitcher was performing in vain to keep his spot in the starting rotation, the poor showing of another Nationals arm may have brought its owner's role on the team nearer to jeopardy.
Closer Matt Capps gave up three earned runs in the ninth inning Sunday at Nationals Park. He blew his fourth save in his past six chances, and although the Washington bats kept him from also being charged with the loss, the Nationals did eventually fall to Cincinnati, 5-4, in 10 innings.
"I [stunk] today," Capps said. "There's no if, ands or buts about it. I missed on a lot of pitches. That one's on me."
Washington tied the score in the bottom of the ninth on a two-out, two-RBI double by pinch hitter Mike Morse. The Nationals' brief offensive spurt atoned for a poor outing by Capps, but it could not be sustained long enough to provide a cheerier end to a solid outing by starter Craig Stammen.
When his day -- and perhaps temporarily his time in the major leagues -- was through, Stammen stole a brief glance at the Nationals Park scoreboard. Through 6 2/3 innings, he had thrown just 66 pitches. He had allowed just one earned run. He had recovered successfully from a shaky first inning.
For the past several weeks, Stammen had known the start would come in which he would be forced to declare -- at least for the time being, if not once and for all -- whether he deserved to keep his spot in the team's pitching rotation when the organization's most prized prospect, Stephen Strasburg, finally was called up from the minor leagues.
With Strasburg set to debut on Tuesday, that start for Stammen came Sunday. With an ERA approaching six and the burden of a pitcher that had not been credited with a win in nearly seven weeks, Stammen took the mound cognizant that even a strong performance against Cincinnati -- one of the top-hitting lineups in the National League -- might not be enough to alter his fate.
"The proof is in the pudding," Stammen said. "I knew I was kind of one of the guys that was in line for that. I haven't been very consistent, and that's just the way it is."
After the game, Stammen was optioned to Class AAA Syracuse, where he will remain -- for now, at least -- a starting pitcher.
"We're going to lose a quality guy in Craig Stammen," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "Craig has really battled, but somebody's got to go, and it's Craig. But I feel terrible about that, too. Everybody's excited about a nice addition, but one of the guys who's been leaving it all out there for you is the one who takes the hit on this. And we know he'll be back. But right now I'm more feeling pain for Craig than I am happiness that we're going to make an addition."
When asked whether Stammen could have performed well enough Sunday to avoid losing his spot in the starting rotation, Riggleman said: "It was really not much along those lines. The only decision really was going to be if, whoever it was, would we send him to the bullpen instead, and we chose not to do that."
The plan to rely on a rested bullpen Sunday worked seamlessly until Capps faced Drew Stubbs in the ninth. Stubbs lofted a hit toward the right field corner that was misplayed -- and thus not caught -- by Roger Bernadina.
With Stubbs on second, pinch-hitter Jonny Gomes hit an RBI double to tie the score. Then Capps worked a 1-2 count on pinch hitter Scott Rolen. Capps threw a slider on which Rolen gave a check-swing. The first base umpire ruled Rolen checked in time. On the next pitch -- also a slider -- Rolen poked the ball over the left field wall for his 14th home run of the season.
"If it can go wrong for him right now, it's going wrong," Riggleman said. "We're not making plays when he's out there. I felt like we could have made a play on Stubbs's ball, and I thought we had Rolen struck out. That check swing keeps coming back to haunt us. I know for a fact we had him struck out. It's called a ball, and then he throws a slider that hangs a little, and Rolen did what you're supposed to do with a hanging slider."
After the Nationals tied the score in the bottom of the ninth, the Reds tagged the Washington bullpen with another run in the 10th. It proved to be the game-deciding run, as the Nationals could not answer.
Having already sent one pitcher down to the minors, Riggleman was asked after the game -- Washington's seventh loss in nine games -- whether Capps would remain the team's closer.
"I hadn't really thought about anything like that," the manager said. "We'll just put it together when we come back here Tuesday, and hopefully [Monday's] off day will help us."