Astros 7, Nationals 6
Have you seen this movie, the summer flop about baseball, the one where the guy can't field a bunt, and it costs his team, where another guy can't get back to the base in time, and he's doubled off? It stars the Washington Nationals, and it is wearing on them, even as they fight to stay in a pennant race.
Even with Livan Hernandez -- the ace who isn't pitching like one -- allowing a four-run first, and even with a key error and base-running blunders, the Nationals had yet another opportunity Wednesday night, one they let slide away in a 7-6 loss to the Houston Astros, one that felt like so many of the mounting losses over this summer that is seeming longer and hotter by the day.
"All you have to do is go back and play the recording from most of the year," Manager Frank Robinson said, "and especially the second half."
Because the same scenes play out time and again. Hernandez gave up 10 hits, 4 walks and 7 runs -- five earned -- in just six innings of hard labor. He tried to make up for it with three hits, including his second home run of the season. But there were so many other problems that prevented the Nationals from moving into a tie with the Astros for the lead in the National League wild-card race.
"We've talked about those things, too," Robinson said. "As I said, they come back to haunt you, bite you, at the end of the game in close ballgames -- against good ballclubs, especially. You can't make those kinds of mistakes, or give them those kinds of opportunities, or squander opportunities like we squander offensively. It's going to cost you ballgames."
It has been costing them ballgames for more than a month. They lost for the fourth time in five games, gave back the game they had gained on the wild-card leading Astros the previous night, and were left with the prospect of having to beat Houston left-hander Andy Pettitte in Thursday's finale if they are to win the series.
Worse, with Philadelphia's 9-5 win Wednesday night at Los Angeles, the Nationals are now tied for third place in the NL East, a position in which they have not resided since June 3. They slipped a season-high 61/2 games behind first-place Atlanta, and are just a game out of last.
The problems started with Hernandez, who allowed a three-run double to Orlando Palmeiro in a four-run Houston first. It is now two starts in a row in which he has struggled, particularly in the first inning, and when the Nationals need him most, he is fading. His totals for his last two starts: 22 hits and 9 earned runs in 112/3 innings.
"The last two games, for some reason," Hernandez said, "I had a difficult time in the first inning. It's not easy."
But in part because Hernandez can hit -- his 3-for-3 night raised his average to .237, 49 points above that of the regular shortstop, Cristian Guzman -- the Nationals stayed afloat. Hernandez's homer, a line shot to left off starter Wandy Rodriguez, tied the game at 4 in the fourth.
Yet only after Hernandez allowed a two-out, tiebreaking double to Craig Biggio in the fourth -- one of Biggio's four hits -- did the Nationals' gaffes truly begin. With one out and men on first and second in the fifth, Brad Wilkerson hit a long fly ball to left. Vinny Castilla, the trail runner, ran all the way to second.
Houston left fielder Lance Berkman made the catch and Jose Vidro scampered safely back to second. Castilla, however, sauntered back to first, jogging gingerly on his bad left knee. It wasn't good enough. Castilla was doubled off and ended the inning staring at first base coach Don Buford.
"Vinny's responsibility is to bust his tail back to first base," Robinson said. "If you do that, the coach doesn't have to do anything."
The next moment came in the sixth, when Hernandez made, perhaps, two errors -- one physical, the other mental. With a runner on first and no one out, Hernandez tried to field a bunt from pinch hitter Chris Burke. But in his haste to nail the runner at second, he fumbled the ball, and both men were safe.
Hernandez, though, was crafty enough to get a sacrifice bunt from Willy Taveras, and then get Biggio swinging through a slow breaking ball. There were two outs, Berkman was up, and it was time for a conference. With runners on second and third, Robinson asked Hernandez whether he wanted to face Berkman, whom he had struck out twice and retired on a grounder, or Morgan Ensberg, who had torched the Nationals for two homers the previous night.
Hernandez chose to walk Berkman intentionally and pitch to Ensberg, who came to the plate with 85 RBI.
"Berkman is a difficult hitter," Hernandez said. "Everybody knows that. And I got a good day with Ensberg, and I want to face him."
It was, as it turns out, the wrong decision. Ensberg ripped a two-run double to right-center, making it 7-4, nearly putting the game out of reach.
"That was a decision that didn't work out," Robinson said.
Other things didn't work, either, such as the Nationals' final comeback attempt. Facing closer Brad Lidge in the ninth, Nick Johnson and Wilkerson delivered two-out, RBI hits to close the gap to 7-6. With runners on first and third, Robinson sent Jose Guillen -- appearing for the first time in four games -- to pinch-hit for struggling Preston Wilson.
"That's a no-brainer," Robinson said.
But Guillen chased a Lidge slider in the dirt, and the night ended. So many little things, one really large loss.