Heading into the bottom of the seventh, the Nationals were leading 3-2 at Yankee Stadium. That’s exactly the precipice where they seem to fall off every time. And they did again tonight, thanks to a couple of rocket doubles Elijah Dukes couldn’t catch.
Ron Villone gave up a leadoff single to Johnny Damon in the eighth, and then Mark Teixeira hit a shot to the 399-foot sign in left center. Dukes jumped for it, but the ball slipped past his glove and went off his bare right hand. He stopped and pumped his fist angrily for a minute while the ball skipped to Adam Dunn, and a relay to home plate was a second too late to get Damon.
Two batters later, Robinson Cano hit a searing liner to center. Dukes took a step in, then backtracked and couldn’t grab the ball with a leap. That scored Teixeira, and the Yankees had the lead for good.
“In his defense, he’s not a natural center fielder,” manager Manny Acta said. “Those balls were hit pretty good. Would I want him to catch every one of them? Yes. But he did make an effort.”
Asked if the balls should have been caught, Villone said, “They hit two hard. No matter what, they shouldn’t be hit that hard. Whether they caught it or not, that is really more irrelevant to me than where I have the pitch and where they hit it. You leave balls up and give them a chance instead of getting balls on the ground. I didn’t do my job. I was trying to get ground balls. I blame myself more than anybody else. It stinks at this point, because I’ve done it a couple times.”
This is the fourth straight game (all on this road trip) where the Nationals have blown leads.
They’re now 13-17 when tied or ahead at the start of the seventh inning. Think about that for a minute. More than a third of the Nationals’ losses have come when they’re at least tied at the start of the seventh.
That’s why this is a more frustrating last-place team than last year’s, because just as often as not, the Nationals aren’t overmatched. They’re just losing late.