Monday, May 9, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s amazing how quickly a ballclub can go from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.

Such is life for the Washington Nationals, who 24 hours after celebrating their most impressive win of the season were left dejected over their most frustrating defeat of the year — a torturous, 4-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants that took 13 innings, four hours and two rain delays to complete.

Right fielder Jose Guillen’s misplay of Omar Vizquel’s line drive in the 13th proved to be the game’s deciding play. Jason Ellison, who beat out a close grounder to shortstop to open the inning, waltzed around to score from second after Guillen came in too far and helplessly watched Vizquel’s hit sail just over his glove.

“The guy was on second, nobody out, so I was playing in a little bit,” Guillen said. “He hit a line drive. It was kind of taking off, and it just went over my head.”

That may have been the game’s official deciding play, but the Nationals certainly didn’t believe that’s what cost them the victory. A couple of calls by Charlie Reliford’s umpiring crew that allowed the Giants’ second and third runs to score were far more disturbing to Washington manager Frank Robinson.

“You go out there on the field, you compete, and if you get beat, you get beat,” said Robinson, whose team still managed to take two of three from San Francisco. “But what you don’t like is for it to be taken away from you.”

Valid argument or not, the Nationals also were upset they didn’t make the most of several scoring opportunities during the course of the game. Washington wound up stranding 11 men on base and was a combined 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position.

The Nationals had two chances in particular to win the game in extra innings. They had a runner on third with one out in the 10th, but Nick Johnson struck out and Endy Chavez ground into a forceout. They had two on and two out in the 12th, but Johnson grounded out meekly to the pitcher.

“There’s no blaming the umpires for the calls they make. That’s part of the game,” Guillen said. “We’re going to lose some tough games like that. We’re going to win some. But in my opinion, we had every opportunity to win that game. We just could not get it done.”

The game had been cruising along nicely — aside from a 25-minute rain delay at the start — for 4 innings, with the Nationals taking a 2-1 lead on Guillen’s first-inning homer and fifth-inning sacrifice fly.

That’s when things started to get strange.

It began with a questionable call by first-base umpire Angel Hernandez in the fifth. With a runner on third and two out, shortstop Cristian Guzman went deep into the hole to grab Vizquel’s grounder, then appeared to beat a head-first-sliding Vizquel with his throw to first. Hernandez, though, called him safe, allowing the tying run to score and bringing Robinson out of the dugout for his first argument of the day.

Two innings later, it was the Nationals’ turn to take advantage of some bad luck. With a steady rain falling and a brisk wind blowing out to left, Giants center fielder Michael Tucker dropped Guillen’s fly ball. Jamey Carroll (4-for-6) came all the way around from first to score, and Washington had itself a 3-2 lead.

Despite waiting out another rain delay (this one a mere 20 minutes) in the seventh, Nationals starter Esteban Loaiza was still cruising in the eighth, getting two quick outs. Vizquel, though, singled to right, and that set up the game’s biggest controversy.

Edgardo Alfonzo followed Vizquel by dropping a sure double just inside the left-field line. Before Washington’s Brad Wilkerson could get to the ball, a fan reached over the fence and made contact with it, prompting Reliford (the third-base umpire) immediately to signal for fan interference.

The Nationals, believing the runners would be held to second and third, appeared to have gotten lucky. Vizquel, though, was allowed to come all the way around to score from first because — in plate umpire Lance Barksdale’s opinion — he would have scored had the interference never happened.

That sent Robinson, who already had come to the mound to remove Loaiza, into a tizzy. He argued vociferously for several minutes, joined near the pitcher’s mound by all of his infielders and Wilkerson.

“In their opinion, the runner would have scored,” Robinson said. “In my opinion, I don’t know if he would have or not. He was 10 to 15 feet away from third base. How do you know he would have scored? I just don’t think that should have been invoked in that situation there.”

Reliford, the crew chief, defended Barksdale’s call, which allowed the Giants to tie the game at 3-3.

“Even if he’s well short of third base when the interference happens, you call it that way,” Reliford said. “You look at the play and say, ‘This is what we think would’ve happened had the spectator not touched the ball.’”

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