Washington Nationals fall to Houston Astros, 8-2, before mostly empty stadium

Geoff Blum of the Houston Astros rounds third base after hitting a three-run home run in the fifth inning against the Washington Nationals. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Geoff Blum of the Houston Astros rounds third base after hitting a three-run home run in the fifth inning against the Washington Nationals. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 12:09 AM

The final homestand of the Washington Nationals' season began Monday night with little fanfare and fewer fans. Swaths of empty blue seats sparkled from the stadium lights. Abject silence filled Nationals Park upon Livan Hernandez's first pitch, interrupted over the next nine innings only by bats cracking, gloves snapping, organ music, fielders screaming, "I got it!" and polite applause.

If Monday served as an indication, the last 10 home games of 2010 will provide spacious seating and unsightly baseball. An announced crowd of 10,999 - the smallest since baseball returned to Washington in 2005 - watched the Nationals lose, 8-2, to the Houston Astros. No more than 8,000 people actually dotted the stadium as the Nationals' fourth straight defeat gave them a season-worst 26 more losses than wins.

"If we want good crowds out here, we're going to have to play better baseball and win more games," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "When you lose too much, people are going to get a little disillusioned with it. We can't let that happen. We can't allow it to happen where the atmosphere around the ballclub is that progress isn't being made. We know progress is being made. But every now and then we take a step backwards."

The factors aligned Monday for the Nationals to surpass the old record-low crowd of 11,191: An unglamorous opponent far from contention; the autumn chill; Redskins season; and, most of all, the home team's recent play. Since their 20-15 start, the Nationals have gone 42-73. At that pace over a full season, the Nationals would go 59-103 - the same record that last year landed them the first overall pick.

Afterward, the Nationals couldn't blame the masses who stayed away.

"For what our record is, I think our fan base has been pretty awesome," first baseman Adam Dunn said. "It would be tough for me as a fan to come out and come watch us when we're playing bad. I feel like sometimes watching us would be, as a fan, pretty entertaining. We have a lot of entertaining guys. But you look at our record and stuff, why would you come see us? For the most part, I think our fan base is pretty awesome."

On Monday, the Nationals summoned the hallmarks that have brought them to this point. They surrendered seven runs and committed three errors in a brutal fifth inning. They asked their bullpen for four innings.

Their offense managed six hits against the Astros and starter Bud Norris, who entered with a 4.95 ERA.

For the first four innings, Hernandez cruised toward a rare milestone. He entered the game with 194 innings for the season, six shy of throwing 200 for the 10th time in his career. (That doesn't count 1999, when he threw 1992/3.) Dunn gave Hernandez the lead with a two-run double in the first.

In the fifth, disaster struck. "That was just a bad inning," Riggleman said. "Terrible inning."

Chris Johnson led off with a double to the right-center field gap. Brian Bogusevic followed with a grounder to the right side. Dunn shuffled several steps to his right and made a solid backhanded stop.

Dunn waited a moment and considered throwing to third to nail Johnson. He thought better of it and turned back to first. But "I started late," Hernandez said. He lumbered to first and flipped the ball to him. The ball hit Hernandez in his glove and he attempted a catch-and-tag, but the ball bounded away.

The play was called a single with an error on Dunn, though the throw appeared to be on target - "I thought Dunn made a good feed," Riggleman said. Either way, the miscue allowed Johnson to race home from second to tie the score.

The ugliness had only begun. Humberto Quintero blasted a two-run home run to left. Norris roped a line drive to left that smacked off Willie Harris's glove, ruled a two-base error. Jeff Keppinger ripped a single to center, which Roger Bernadina booted to allow Norris to score.

After a Carlos Lee single, Geoff Blum rocketed another home run off the back wall of the bullpen. Hernandez had been hit hard, but three errors - which upped the season total to 120 - made it possible.

"Those errors, those are stupid errors," Harris said. "Those are errors we cannot make, myself included."

Hernandez exited after the inning, stuck on 199 innings and down by six runs. Not long after, fans began trickling out of the park. Once they left, the place hardly looked any different.

"It's disappointing," Harris said. "But at the same, who wants to come out if you're not going to win?"

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