By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 12:15 AM
Wilson Ramos was not supposed to play Wednesday afternoon. A few minutes before the first pitch, he sat at his locker inside the Washington Nationals clubhouse, unaware that Ivan Rodriguez could not shake a nagging illness. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein approached Ramos and stunned him when he said, "You're in the game."
Ramos's late entry into the lineup created a memory for the rookie catcher and provided the Nationals with a way to take their minds off how hopelessly far they are from contention. Two crucial sequences presented the New York Mets with a 3-2 victory over the Nationals before 16,002 at Nationals Park, giving New York the series, handing the Nationals their 80th loss and robbing Livan Hernandez of his team-leading 10th win of the year.
Ramos, the catcher the Nationals traded Matt Capps for to make him a part of their future, launched his first career home run, a two-run blast in the fifth inning. But the Nationals could muster no more offense against knuckleballing Mets starter R.A. Dickey. The Nationals really lost the game in the seventh inning, when Sean Burnett made a good pitch to an overmatched rookie. The ball rolled past Adam Dunn in a place no one guessed it would roll.
So it goes for the Nationals.
"It's a game of inches," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "When you're winning games, those things go your way. When you're not winning games, they don't seem to go your way."
The final run scored after a Riggleman plan led to what he wanted, and then that led to a bad break. Hernandez was cruising along when the seventh inning began. The Mets' lone runs had come in the third on three straight hits and a sacrifice fly, and Hernandez had retired 11 of 14 since.
Josh Thole led off with a walk, and Ruben Tejada bunted him to second on Hernandez's 95th pitch. Mets Manager Jerry Manuel inserted Lucas Duda, a left-handed call-up who was 1 for 22. Switch hitter Angel Pagan stood on deck, and Riggleman did not want Pagan batting left-handed against Hernandez. So Hernandez, no matter what, would be done in one batter.
Riggleman knew Manuel would replace Duda with a right-handed pinch-hitter if he summoned the left-handed Burnett. That's exactly what Riggleman wanted - right-handed batters were hitting .183 against Burnett this season.
When Riggleman took the ball from Hernandez, Manuel pulled back Duda and sent to the plate Nick Evans, another call-up, but a right-handed one. And Burnett overpowered him. Evans sliced three outside fastballs into the Nationals dugout or crowd at nearly a 90-degree angle, well late with his swing.
"He was taking some funky swings," Burnett said.
Burnett threw a fourth fastball, this one inside, and Evans again swung late. Evans broke his bat and sent the ball down the line, toward first baseman Dunn, which was not a promising development.
"A right-handed hitter hitting a ball against a left-handed pitcher down the first-base line, you might see that two or three times a year," Riggleman said. "That's about it."
Dunn stumbled one step, lunged and watched the ball roll past, about a foot from his glove. Thole cruised home, and Evans motored to second with the go-ahead double.
"You don't see too many broken-bat, fastballs in down the first-base line," Burnett said. "I guess when you're a lefty, anything can happen."
The Nationals' bats stayed silent for the remainder of the game. They could have broken the game open in the sixth inning, when Dunn laced a single to right field and loaded the bases with one out. But Roger Bernadina popped up to third and Michael Morse followed with a grounder to short, ending the threat.
At least Ramos became the latest September call-up to take the Nationals' minds off how far they are from contending, going 2 for 3 with a double and his first career homer. The Nationals believe Ramos, 23, will become part of their bedrock, their catcher for years to come, because of his vast and obvious defensive skill. But they also believe his raw strength and easy swing give him the potential to someday clobber home runs like few catchers can. He hit a home run only once every 37.9 at-bats in the minors, but they see him potentially hitting about 20 in a season.
"When he swings the bat," Riggleman said, "the ball really jumps."
On Wednesday, he showed why. In his first at-bat, he poked a single up the middle, the Nationals' first hit off Dickey, and with hustle turned it into a double. When he came to bat a second time in the fifth, the Nationals had only two hits against Dickey, the second a single by Morse two batters earlier.
Ramos had rare insight into Dickey, the 35-year-old who might be the comeback story of the season. Ramos caught Dickey during spring training in 2009, when both played in the Twins organization.
"Today when I faced him, I know a little bit how he likes to pitch in different counts," Ramos said. "I was ready for his knuckleball. I never try to pull that ball, because if you try to pull that pitch, it's a groundball to shortstop, third base for sure. I always try to stay in the middle."
Sure enough, Dickey threw him two 77-mph knuckleballs. The second stayed up in the strike zone. The ball exploded off Ramos's bat and over the center field fence, onto the grassy berm beyond the wall. The first home run of his career had tied the score at 2. The Nationals could savor Ramos's first homer even as they absorbed the familiar feeling of another loss.
"I'm excited I hit the home run," Ramos said. "I'm not too excited, because we lost."