As much as the Boston Red Sox have become the blueprint for building a winner in the major leagues, their path to success is an even more specific model for the Washington Nationals.
One of manager Manny Acta's favorite books is "Mind Game," a Baseball Prospectus account of how the Red Sox finally overtook the New York Yankees in 2004 by building a lineup full of players with high on-base percentages, carefully handling their pitching staff and treating outs as precious commodities not to be given away on the basepaths or mishandled in the field.
Philosophically, it's how the Nationals have tried to build their team. But in resources and results, the chasm between the theoretical and the actual is still miles wide. That was never more apparent than in Boston's 11-3 win on Tuesday night.
While the Nationals' defense slipped, the Red Sox took advantage. While the Red Sox turned walks into runs, the Nationals turned them into men left on base. And while Boston's bullpen flitted efficiently through the game's final three innings, Washington's stumbled and fell through self-made holes.
All that turned a tightly contested ballgame in front of a Nationals Park-record crowd of 41,517 into a laugher that ended in front of a plentiful and pleased Red Sox contingent.
"It was a typical example of what got us where we're at right now," Acta said. "We didn't play good defense. We allowed them to take the lead on poor defense. There's some other stuff that didn't show up in the box score, either. ... And then the bullpen imploded and didn't keep us in the game."
Nationals starter John Lannan battled Brad Penny for six innings, leaving with the score tied, but the Red Sox split the game open with eight runs in the game's final three innings.
Lannan's fastball-first approach didn't work nearly as well as it did in his 8 1/3-inning masterpiece last week in Yankee Stadium for the simple fact that he didn't locate it nearly as well. But the left-hander still managed to gut through 6 1/3 innings. Despite needing 69 pitches to get through the first three, he ended with 104, giving way to Julian Tavarez in the seventh with the game tied at 3-3.
It was in that transfer, from the Nationals' steadiest starter to their rickety relievers, that Washington fumbled the game.
Ryan Zimmerman's throw bounced in front of Nick Johnson and allowed Kevin Youkilis to reach safely with one out. Then Tavarez gave up a single to Jason Bay, which forced the Nationals to walk Mike Lowell and load the bases for Jason Varitek.
As Varitek lofted a 1-2 change-up to the outfield, Willie Harris tracked the ball and readied himself for a throw to the plate. But the ball drifted into the range of Adam Dunn, who caught the ball over the top of Harris and didn't attempt a throw home.
Youkilis scored without a challenge, and the Red Sox, after fighting off the Nationals most of the night, had the lead for good.
All the Nationals could do to gum up the problem is toss relievers at it. After Lannan left, a combined four relievers pitched to Boston's next 11 batters, recording three outs in that span - one on a sacrifice fly and one on a slick running catch by Harris.
Their bullpen levee finally broke, though, when Bay came up for the fifth time. He punched a bases-loaded single into left, scoring two runs and extending the Red Sox lead to three.
By the time the eighth inning mercifully ended, it was seven, courtesy of a six-run inning that sent the Nationals' share of the record crowd heading for the exits.
"As far as the eighth inning goes, if we limit them to one run there, we've still got a chance," said Joel Hanrahan, who gave up Boston's final run in the ninth inning.
The bullpen deluge did blot out the importance of the Nationals' missed chances, particularly in the fourth.
Before the Nationals had two outs in the inning, they had gotten a Zimmerman single, three walks and a run off Penny's wild pitch with Willie Harris at the plate.
All it netted, though, was the run off the wild pitch. Anderson Hernandez hit a weak grounder toward third baseman Mike Lowell, who threw out Josh Willingham at home plate, and Lannan struck out to end the inning.
And while Boston was mashing its way through the Nationals' bullpen, Washington couldn't get a hit until the ninth, when two singles preceded a game-ending Nick Johnson double play.
"There's not a lot of difference between those guys and the Yankees [whom the Nationals beat two out of three last week]," catcher Josh Bard said. "Today's one of those days where we didn't execute."
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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