Nats Find Another Way to Lose

Colome's Throw Stuns Hernández: Phillies 8, Nationals 6

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 18, 2009

The how-to guide for demoralizing losses, the chief labor of Washington's brief season, is now ready for publication. The Nationals needed only 1 1/2 months to become master-level losers, a model for opportunity-squandering, fortune-erasing, lead-blowing aspirants everywhere. The Nationals (11-25) achieved this not because they're entirely inept; rather, just the opposite. This team, with its offense humming at a playoff-caliber level, still manages to lose almost every night. Losing when you have no chance requires no tricks; losing when you have every reason to avoid it is Washington's singular art form.

Perhaps other teams have been swept in a four-games series after scoring at least five runs in every one. But Washington's 8-6 defeat at Nationals Park against the Phillies yesterday afternoon completed the guidebook, with all those patented uh-ohs. The burlesque fielding play. The rampant eighth-inning pitching changes, each reliever tossed aside like suits in a fitting room. The blown lead. The latest setback.

By now, the primary lament of Washington's season isn't merely the losses, but the fact that they're coming in tandem with so many winning individual performances. The team's 3-4-5 hitters, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Elijah Dukes, are all on pace for 100 RBI. Cristian Guzmán, who went 3 for 5 yesterday -- his 15th multi-hit game in 24 starts -- has proved last year's all-star campaign was no fluke. Nick Johnson looks healthy and sharp. The Nationals rank fourth in the National League in runs scored, third in batting average and slugging percentage.

And still: All those runs have amounted to nothing. Counting the latest loss, which unraveled during Philadelphia's three-run eighth inning, the Nationals are 6-9 when scoring six or more runs. They dropped the series finale against the Phillies despite tearing at Philadelphia starter Chan Ho Park, who threw 63 pitches while recording four outs. Despite recovering from a ragged start by Jordan Zimmermann, holding a 5-5 tie when the 22-year-old exited after five innings. Despite jumping ahead in the sixth, when Guzmán scored for the third time in the game on Zimmerman's sacrifice fly. Despite two perfect relief innings from Ron Villone, who ushered the 6-5 lead into the eighth.

But give the Nationals a tight lead in the final innings, and they tend to get creative. "It seems," Zimmerman said, "like we can do some stuff right now that other people can't."

Julián Tavárez, the first relief pitcher of the eighth inning, put the first two runners on -- a single and a walk -- before getting yanked in favor of Jesús Colome. The first batter Colome faced, Pedro Feliz, dropped a bunt toward the third base line, in just the spot where the pitcher and the third baseman reached for it at the same time. Colome reached out his hand. Zimmerman extended his glove. Anderson Hernández, the second baseman, moved toward the first base bag.

Hernández was there to catch the throw -- no matter who threw it. But when Colome and Zimmerman intersected, it had the effect of a play-action fake-out. Hernández initially thought Zimmerman picked up the ball. The second baseman watched for the throw from the wrong source.

With the ball about 10 feet from the bag, Hernández noticed a baseball hurtling toward his belt buckle. He jumped aside, like somebody avoiding a bus that missed a stop sign.

The errant throw pinballed into right field. Two runs scored, and the Phillies had the lead.

"I throw it on the bag," Colome said. "Anderson, he thought Zimmerman was throwing the ball, not me."

"I lost it," Hernández said. "I didn't even see who had it."

Though that error (charged to Colome) was the coup de grace, a final relief pitcher, Joe Beimel, soon came on and yielded a double to Eric Bruntlett. That gave Philadelphia an 8-6 edge and eased the burden on the Phillies' bullpen, which held the Nationals hitless in the final two innings.

With that, Washington dropped its fourth straight, and opened itself to conversation about how much more it can endure. Can the Nationals' offense sustain this pace, when again and again its productivity yields nothing?

"I don't know if they'll be able to put up with it or handle it the whole season -- I hope they do, because we do have a lot of good-character guys in our lineup -- but it's 'so far, so good,' " Acta said. "They really don't worry about the other struggles."

"It's hard, man," Willie Harris said. "Me personally, I know we're going to score runs. I feel like we can go out and score eight runs a day. We just have to figure out a way to keep the other team off the scoreboard. We have to figure out a way to shut teams down, to be able to avoid that leprechaun inning and find a way to win."

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