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Two pitches fateful for Nats

- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 11, 2005

There weren't that many pitches thrown at RFK Stadium yesterday in the Washington Nationals' 4-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves -- 227, to be exact -- in a game that lasted all of two hours and 15 minutes.

Truth be told, there really were only two pitches that mattered by day's end: a 2-0 slider from Livan Hernandez to Brian McCann in the fourth and an 0-1 offering from Jorge Sosa to Cristian Guzman in the fifth.

Both balls were hit well to right field. The only difference? McCann's landed over the fence for a three-run Braves homer. Guzman's, seemingly destined to be a two-run shot, was snatched back into the field of play by Atlanta's Jeff Francoeur for a harmless out.

Two pitches, two very different results, one more frustrating loss for the Nationals.

"We just don't seem to be able to put two games together," said manager Frank Robinson, whose club fell flat just hours after pulling off an inspiring, comeback win. "It doesn't seem like we have the ability to do it."

Like so many of the Nationals' previous losses, this one is likely to come back to haunt them. Given an advantageous pitching matchup and a boisterous home crowd of 44,083 at RFK Stadium, they failed to capitalize and fell further out of the National League wild-card race -- four games behind the Houston Astros.

At 73-70, with rookie reliever Jason Bergmann making his first career start today against the indomitable John Smoltz, can this team still claim to be alive?

"I wouldn't say no just yet," first baseman Brad Wilkerson said. "We're not out of it yet. We still have a lot of games left, but we need to start playing day in and day out, try to be more consistent."

A more consistent performance yesterday would have been nice.

Hernandez (15-7) wasn't bad, far from it. In seven of his eight innings, the right-hander gave up four hits and no runs. But all it took was one bad inning -- the four-run fourth -- to turn a quality start into a loss. And all it took was two pitches to account for all four runs.

The first, by all accounts, was a good pitch: a 2-1 fastball to Jones on the low-and-outside corner of the plate. There's a reason the dynamic Braves center fielder has become a leading MVP candidate, though, and this was why. Despite playing with flu-like symptoms, he took that outside pitch from Hernandez, drilled it to right field and watched it sail over the fence for his league-leading 47th home run.

Both Robinson and Hernandez gave the credit to Jones, who tied the Braves' single-season home run record set by all-time greats Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews.

Not everyone in the Nationals' clubhouse, though, agreed with the strategy to pitch to a player who has torched them for six homers and 20 RBI in 18 games this season.

"I think we just need to be smart enough to know which players to pitch around," right fielder Jose Guillen said. "Frank is the manager, and he needs to step up and make those moves. You cannot give a good pitch to hit right now to Andruw or Chipper [Jones]. But I'm not a manager. I'm not a pitching coach. I'm not a pitcher. To me, there's no reason to be pitching to Andruw right now the way he's been swinging."

It wasn't Jones' one-out homer that killed the Nationals, though. It was McCann's three-run shot later in the inning, one that came on a hanging 2-0 slider with two outs and the pitcher on deck.

"I don't know what happened. I made a mistake," Hernandez said. "I think the guy on second base [Francoeur] gave him the sign. ... 2-0, nobody's looking for a slider."

No matter whether McCann, a .261-hitting backup catcher, was tipped off, the home run changed the entire complexion of the game.

"A one-run game is a whole lot different than a four-run game," Robinson said. "It's a whole different approach from the pitcher's side and from our hitters'."

The four-run lead allowed Sosa (11-3) to challenge Washington's hitters without fear of giving the game back on one swing. And the right-hander did it splendidly, throwing just 25 of his 99 pitches for balls and walking none over eight innings.

His only potential hiccup came in the fifth, when the suddenly hot-hitting Guzman lofted an 0-1 pitch to the wall in right. Francoeur, the surprise rookie of the year candidate, timed his leap perfectly and stretched his glove over the railing as the crowd fell silent with anticipation. When he came back down, the ball in his glove, the masses let out a sigh of dejection, perhaps realizing the home team wouldn't get another shot like that all afternoon.

"It kind of takes a little air out of you, sure," Robinson said. "That certainly would have been a big moment for us."

Said Braves manager Bobby Cox: "To make that type of catch, running the way he was, that turned the ballgame around. I mean, it would've been 4-2 at that point and anything can happen."

Instead, it remained 4-0. And the Nationals again trudged off the field feeling as if they had wasted another golden opportunity.

With the season down to its final 19 games, they may not see many more.