By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2010; D08
The health of Stephen Strasburg and the complexion of their roster hover over the Washington Nationals these days, the games themselves serving as what happens between treatment sessions and rumors surfacing. On Wednesday night, against a longtime nemesis, the Nationals' performance did little to steal attention from their off-field drama.
As Liván Hernández made the shortest start of his season, Nationals hitters were mowed down by Atlanta Braves starter Tim Hudson for the third time this year in a 3-1 loss before 24,263 at Nationals Park. Hernández, coming off his second complete game of the year, lasted just 4 1/3 innings and surrendered three runs, including one when Jason Heyward stole home.
Manager Jim Riggleman surprised Hernández, one of the league's most durable pitchers, by pulling him in the fifth after he had thrown 85 pitches. The way Hudson pitched, it wouldn't have mattered how long he stayed in. He allowed one run in 7 2/3 innings, extending his run of superiority over the Nationals. This season, over three starts, Hudson has allowed Washington three runs in 21 2/3 innings. In his career, over 16 starts, he is 10-1 with a 1.49 ERA against Washington.
"He just changed his game plan against us," first baseman Adam Dunn said. "We've faced him so many times. Normally, he'll throw some off-speed in there. He had a really good sinker and stuck with it. He just mixed it up. I've never faced him when he's thrown that many sinkers before. He's one of the top three in the game."
Hudson's dominance overshadowed another standout performance from the Nationals' overworked bullpen. It contributed 4 2/3 scoreless innings Wednesday, three from Joel Peralta. Counting Miguel Batista's five-inning spot start Tuesday, Nationals relievers have thrown 13 2/3 scoreless innings over the past two days. In the past four games, they've allowed six earned runs in 24 innings.
"It's really unbelievable what they've done," Dunn said. "There are some guys that ate up a whole lot of innings."
Hernández's night never got off the ground. He surrendered a leadoff single to Martin Prado, which Heyward followed with a line-drive double to right. Heyward hit a misplaced change-up, a pitch Hernández felt changed his start.
"I'm not supposed to throw that," Hernández said. "That one, I think, is the pitch of the game. That was a bad pitch."
Chipper Jones's sacrifice fly scored the Braves' first run, and then they took advantage of the Nationals' defense for their second. With one out, Brian McCann on first and Heyward on third, Eric Hinske dug into the batter's box with two strikes. McCann took off running as Hernández struck out Hinske swinging. Iván Rodríguez fired to second base and McCann, a catcher who runs like one, paused halfway between the bases.
Ian Desmond caught the throw and ran McCann back to first base. McCann retreated until Desmond tossed to Dunn. When Desmond released the ball, Heyward bolted. Dunn kept his eyes on McCann and took one step toward second before making a twisting throw home. Rodríguez swiped at Heyward, but just after he slid home safely.
"We might have been able to do it better," Dunn said. "I thought we did it real good. He beat it. He's fast."
Said Riggleman: "We didn't really execute it just the way we should've. Heyward left at the optimum time there to make it a tough play for Adam to get a throw off, but it's a strike-'em-out, throw-'em-out situation. The only thing we could have done different is 'Desi' run the ball a little further back to first toward Adam and let Adam take the ball more toward first base so he's got a little better angle to throw from. But they executed the play perfectly and got the run."
The Braves led 2-0 before the Nationals even had a chance at bat, and with Hudson on the mound, the Braves' offense may well have taken the rest of the night off. The Nationals last faced Hudson in Atlanta on June 28, when Hudson shut them out for seven innings and spoiled one of Strasburg's best starts.
On Thursday, the Nationals could not dent Hudson until the fifth. Rodríguez led off the inning with a double -- his first extra-base hit since July 10, a span of 41 at-bats -- and eventually scored on an RBI single by Michael Morse.
Morse's flare to right snapped Hudson's consecutive scoreless streak against the Nationals at 11 innings, but it did little to dampen his supremacy over their lineup. Hudson retired nine of the next 10 batters he faced, yielding only a single to Ryan Zimmerman.
When Zimmerman walked in the eighth, he drove Hudson's pitch count to 96 and forced him from the game. Braves Manager Bobby Cox summoned Jonny Venters, a left-hander, to pitch to Dunn, the tying run. Venters fed Dunn sinkers and sliders until they had struggled to a 3-2 count. Venters threw a sinker low and away, ball four had Dunn not whiffed. He threw his bat toward the dugout.
Their final threat stamped out, the Nationals could look forward to Thursday's matinee, when at least anyone other than Hudson would be on the mound.