Tuesday, May 2, 2006

NEW YORK — They spend hours working on this stuff in spring training. Coach hits the ball to pitcher, who turns and fires to second base, hoping to start a well-executed double play.

So when they botch it up in the regular season, in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game nonetheless, it drives their manager batty.

Frank Robinson couldn’t hold back his frustration last night after his Washington Nationals lost 2-1 to the New York Mets on that play, with reliever Gary Majewski serving as goat.

Majewski, who snagged Paul Lo Duca’s one-out comebacker, gave the game away by throwing high and wide to second base. Instead of an inning-ending double play, Majewski’s gargantuan error allowed Endy Chavez to score the game-winning run and sent the Shea Stadium crowd of 28,310 home happy.

“It was a [horrible] throw,” Robinson said. “It wasn’t even close. … Guys wonder why we practice, practice, practice. We preach, preach, preach: make sure of one. Take your time, make sure you get one. Give the infielder a good throw. If they can turn two, they’ll turn two. They don’t have a chance if you don’t give them a good throw.”

Majewski (1-2) didn’t give his teammates a chance, and he took full responsibility for his mistakes, both physical and mental.

Pitching in the ninth inning of a 1-1 game, Majewski dug himself into a hole by walking Julio Franco with one out and then surrendering an opposite-field single to Jose Reyes. As Lo Duca came to the plate, Majewski said second baseman Jose Vidro came to him and said he would be shading close to the bag.

Shortstop Royce Clayton was still responsible for covering the base on a comebacker, but when Majewski turned to throw, he saw both middle infielders in the vicinity.

“I know I’m supposed to throw the ball to Royce, but I saw [Vidro] coming across and kind of got caught in between,” Majewski said. “Because Royce wasn’t quite there, and Vidro was behind the bag, I kind of tried to stop. The ball came out and it was high, and the rest is history.”

Said Clayton: “Vidro was kind of by the bag. I don’t know if I distracted him. Your natural instinct is to try to make the throw to the bag, but it was definitely my coverage on Lo Duca.”

This loss will stick with the Nationals (8-18) for some time because victory was there for the taking. Despite playing with only 22 healthy and available men to the Mets’ 25, Washington got a rare, solid pitching performance from Ramon Ortiz (one run in six innings) and had New York starter Victor Zambrano on the ropes numerous times.

But in what has become a recurring theme, the Nationals squandered their scoring opportunities, managing only one run off Zambrano on Brian Schneider’s fourth-inning RBI single.

Desperate to get his club back on track, Robinson pulled out all the stops to try to coax some offense out of this bunch, depleted as it was. With only three available players on his bench — one of those backup catcher Matt LeCroy, who he will use only in an emergency — the veteran manager actually called upon pitcher Livan Hernandez to pinch-hit in the seventh inning ahead of any of his regular reserves.

Hernandez, who faced left-handed reliever Pedro Feliciano with two outs and a man on first, tapped weakly to second to end the inning and fell to 0-for-8 in his career as a pinch-hitter.

“I just didn’t want to burn one of our players, just in case we had to make some moves later in the game,” Robinson said.

Robinson wound up not using any more bench players the rest of the night, watching helplessly as the Nationals failed to get a hit over the game’s final four innings.

So they went into the bottom of the ninth with the score still 1-1 and Majewski on the mound. The 26-year-old right-hander became one of Robinson’s most-trusted relievers a year ago while appearing in 79 games and posting a 2.93 ERA. But he has been in a funk all season and can’t seem to find a way to snap out of it.

Majewski struck out the first batter he faced, Kaz Matsui, but then fell behind the ageless Franco and walked him. Reyes followed with a seeing-eye single through the left-side of the infield, advancing pinch-runner Chavez to second and bringing Lo Duca to the plate.

The rest, as Majewski said, was history. And he could be, too.

Asked whether Majewski — who now has a 4.76 ERA and 24 baserunners allowed in 17 innings — is pitching his way out of his setup role, Robinson took it one step farther.

“He’s pitching himself into a position where he may not even have the chance unless he’s in New Orleans,” the manager said. “That’s what he’s doing.”

Majewski, who hasn’t pitched in the minor leagues since last April, couldn’t dispute that line of thinking.

“I’ve had problems,” he said. “It’s just like any job. If you don’t get the job done, someone else can do it for you.”

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