Braves 4, Nationals 0
It was just one pitch out of 105 hurled yesterday afternoon by Livan Hernandez. Considering it ended up in the mezzanine below Section 468 at RFK Stadium, there had to be something behind it, some reason a rookie catcher named Brian McCann -- a 21-year-old kid who, after the game, was on the wrong end of a whiplash from a towel held by veteran Chipper Jones -- was able to turn it into a three-run homer.
"I'm thinking the guy on second base give the sign," Hernandez said.
That, then, is where the Washington Nationals found themselves yesterday afternoon, searching for answers and explanations after a 4-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves in front of an announced crowd of 44,083. Right-hander Jorge Sosa baffled the Nationals, allowing just six hits and no real threats in eight fine innings of work, his longest outing of the season. Andruw Jones did what he seems to do every day, hitting a solo home run off Hernandez. And the Braves put behind them Friday's traumatic loss, in which they allowed the Nationals to come back from a four-run deficit.
But couldn't it all have been different, if not for that one pitch?
"Of course," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "A one-run game is a whole lot different than a four-run game."
And at that point, in the top of the fourth inning, that's all it was, a 1-0 Atlanta lead. The lone run came in the most impressive manner, with Andruw Jones lunging at a 2-1 pitch from Hernandez that was a bit low, a tad outside. Jones, who awoke yesterday morning with a nasty flu, nevertheless reached for it and sent it on a line to right field, the opposite way.
"Andruw's hot," Hernandez said, "and everybody's know that."
When you're hot, not to mention absurdly talented, things like this happen, a line drive sailing out of spacious RFK, Jones's 47th home run. With three weeks of the season remaining, that number is impressive enough. Consider that it ties the Braves' franchise record and it becomes gaudier. And consider that the men it matches are named Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron, and it pops out.
"He looked as good today," Braves Manager Bobby Cox said, "as I've ever seen him."
The way Jones dominates the Nationals -- he now has six homers and 20 RBI against them this year, including homers in each of his last three games against them -- that one run may have stood up. Sosa was that impressive, improving to 8-0 on the road this year. He didn't walk a batter and rarely did he give the Nationals a chance to even work the count, for of the 99 pitches he threw, 74 were strikes. Only once did the Nationals manage even two base runners in an inning.
"I think in the past few games that we've faced him," first baseman Brad Wilkerson said, "he's struggled to get his slider over for strikes, and his change-up. He was getting them all over for strikes today."
Still, the key pitch in the game came later in the fourth, after Jones's home run. With two down, rookie Jeff Francoeur laced a double to right. Hernandez (15-7) pitched carefully to the following hitter, Ryan Langerhans, trying to get him to chase some pitches out of the zone.
"He no swing," Hernandez said.
So Langerhans walked, putting runners at first and second. Hernandez has been in so many bases-loaded jams and worked out of them, there was a thought of putting McCann on, too, to get to Sosa. Instead, he threw two balls to McCann, then came with a slider, one that was supposed to remain inside, but instead worked its way out over the heart of the plate.
"He hit it good," Hernandez said. But he had that suspicion. Did McCann know what pitch was on the way? "It's 2-0," Hernandez said, "and most people look for fastball."
McCann said he was simply looking for something up in the strike zone. Told Hernandez suspected he had received the sign from Francoeur, who was standing on second base, McCann laughed loudly.
"No," he said. "I didn't get the sign from second base."
Whether he knew what was coming or not, he performed his assigned task correctly, launching the ball on a high arc to right, where it settled into the mezzanine, the three-run shot that made it 4-0.
"I got beat today with a mistake," Hernandez said. "That's it. That was the inning. It's different if it's 1-0."
Sosa (11-3), instead, had a four-run advantage. Perhaps his only mistake came in the bottom of the fifth, when Ryan Church led off with a single, and Cristian Guzman sent a pitch towering toward right. Had the ball sailed out, Guzman would have had his first RFK homer, and the Nationals would have trailed 4-2. But Francoeur raced back, leapt and pulled the ball back from over the fence. The Nationals failed to score.
"To make that type of catch, running the way he was," Cox said, "that turned the ballgame around."
So the Nationals arrive, yet again, at another point in which their season must turn around. Depending on the outcome of late games last night, they could be as many as four games out of the lead in the race for the National League's wild-card playoff berth this morning. They go into today's series finale against Atlanta ace John Smoltz hoping a rookie reliever, Jason Bergmann, can provide a few solid innings in his first major league start, and the bullpen can hold things together.
And, they hope, they aren't talking about a single, game-turning pitch afterward.
"In baseball, you make one mistake, you can lose the game," Hernandez said. "One mistake."