By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 3, 2010; D01
When reality turned his team a cold shoulder Friday night, Washington Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman returned to the comfort of optimism. When the Nationals trailed by four runs entering the ninth inning, they rallied. Two of the team's young hitters -- Roger Bernadina and Ian Desmond -- recorded back-to-back, two-out hits to keep the comeback alive.
With runners on first and second, the winning run -- represented by pinch hitter Willie Harris -- strode to the plate and worked a full count. That's where Riggleman cued the credits.
"I'm not going to sit here and be negative," Riggleman said following Washington's 5-3 loss at Nationals Park. Then he praised Bernadina, Desmond and Harris for their efforts. "And the part there, the pick-off, has just got to be a learning experience for us."
Oh yeah, the pick-off. Bernadina took his lead off of second base and was caught off guard when Mets closer Francisco Rodríguez wheeled around and fired to shortstop Ruben Tejada, who placed the tag that ended the game.
"It's painful," Riggleman said, "but they made a great play and they got him."
With the way the game played out through the first eight innings, the fact the Nationals got into position to win was an accomplishment in itself. They could not sustain an offensive spurt against New York starter Jonathon Niese, and they could not get out of their own way on defense, either.
With one out in the top of the first, Washington starter Luis Atilano hit Tejada, then allowed a single to David Wright. The next batter, Ike Davis, hit a grounder to second baseman Cristian Guzmán.
A double play would have ended the inning. Instead, Guzmán bobbled the ball before recording an out at first. Meantime, Tejada scored from second. Because Guzmán recovered in time to record an out, no error was awarded.
Atilano dug himself another hole in the fourth by allowing a leadoff double to Wright before walking Davis and Jason Bay consecutively to load the bases. Two batters -- and two outs -- later, Alex Cora lofted a flyball toward the wall in right-center field.
A catch would have ended the inning. Right fielder Mike Morse could not leap high enough to make the grab. "Couldn't have missed it by much," he said.
Cora halted at third with a three-run triple. The ninth batter in the Mets' lineup -- Niese -- doubled down the left field line to score Cora in the following at-bat.
And so ended Atilano's night. He lasted 3 2/3 innings, allowing four hits, five earned runs, two walks and a hit batsman.
"Atilano actually threw the ball a lot better than the results said," Riggleman said. "I think we just had a couple of balls that I thought for sure were going to be out of the ballpark, and I think they became tough plays in the outfield because they just seemed like it was going to go and then those balls stayed in the park.
"We could have caught a break on those plays. He could have had a lot better results. He could have come out of that game giving up one earned run."
Save for a solo home run by Josh Willingham in the seventh, the Nationals offered scant resistance against Niese. The left-hander tallied a career-high eight strikeouts and allowed no walks en route to a sterling seven-inning performance.
"The key was it was strike one all night long," Willingham said of Niese's showing. "He didn't get behind many hitters, and he's got a really good cutter and he used that a lot and spotted it on us. We got some hits, but we just couldn't string anything together."
Not until the bottom of the ninth, anyway. With Ryan Zimmerman on first and two outs, Iván Rodríguez hit a double to right field. Bernadina then knocked a single into left field, plating Zimmerman and cutting the Nationals' deficit to three. Desmond followed with a single to center that scored Rodríguez and set up the final sequence.
Harris worked the count full before watching Rodríguez catch Bernadina too far off the bag at second.
"I was late" on the return, Bernadina said. "He just threw me out. That's it."
Midway through a 162-game schedule, the Nationals are 35-46. On Friday night, they were left to ponder opportunities squandered and try to focus on the positives.
"I don't know what would have happened," Riggleman said. "Willie might have hit a three-run homer. He might have made an out. I don't know. Again, I'm looking at the glass half-full. Bernie got a nice base hit to keep a rally going and give us a chance."