Wednesday, June 6, 2007

As he took off from first base and saw Felipe Lopez’s drive roll to the wall in right-center, Tony Batista had only one thought on his mind: score.

In the third-base coaching box, Tim Tolman had a different thought. Don’t take a chance here, not with his club trailing by three runs in the sixth inning.

So Tolman put up the stop sign, perhaps a little late, and Batista ran right through it. He wound up in the middle of a bang-bang play at the plate, called out by umpire Brian Runge even though replays appeared to show his foot beating catcher Ronnie Paulino’s tag by a split second.

No matter. Batista was ruled out, and the Washington Nationals missed a golden opportunity in what ultimately proved to be a 7-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“Those are the types of things we can’t afford,” Nationals manager Manny Acta said after his team fell to 2-5 on the homestand. “We can’t afford to be making those kind of mistakes.”

There were plenty of other problem areas in Washington’s third straight loss.

Left-hander Mike Bacsik had some rare trouble throwing strikes and walked a season-high five batters in his worst outing since joining the rotation.

“That’s the frustrating thing tonight: Everybody did their job,” said Bacsik (1-2), who was battling a stomach illness. “We played good defense. We hit the ball. We scored runs. If I just go out and give us a halfway decent effort, we got ourselves a win tonight.”

The Nationals’ lineup produced late, but for five innings it was mostly stymied by Pittsburgh right-hander Shawn Chacon.

Then there was that pesky little problem Washington is having getting opposing pitchers out. Chacon continued the trend, picking up two singles and making opposing pitchers 7-for-15 with two walks against the Nationals over the last seven games.

“Those opposing pitchers are teeing off on us,” Acta said. “It’s not good. That’s basically the out in the opposition lineup.”

But at the end of the night, it was hard for any of the 19,169 at RFK Stadium to avoid thinking about the two key decisions of the game, both of which happened on the same play: Batista running through Tolman’s stop sign and Runge calling him out at the plate.

The play came with one out in the sixth and the Nationals trying to claw their way back from a 7-2 deficit. Just moments before, Batista had sent a pinch-hit, RBI single up the middle to cut the lead to four and knock Chacon (2-0) out of the game.

When Lopez greeted reliever Damaso Marte with a drive to the right-center gap, it looked like Washington was in business. Ryan Langerhans scored easily from second, but as Batista approached third, Tolman decided to put up the stop sign.

“You can’t be aggressive, really, until you get the tying run to home plate,” the coach said. “We weren’t in that situation yet. We still have [Cristian Guzman] and [Ryan] Zimmerman coming up. I knew it was going to be close. I just think in that situation, that’s too close.”

Batista, though, had already made up his mind he was going to try to score. And by the time he spotted Tolman with both hands up, it was too late in his mind to stop.

“I see it. I just continued,” the veteran infielder said. “On that kind of play, I try to score from first, especially in that kind of situation.”

After seeing the replay, Acta said he believes Batista should have been called safe. But that didn’t excuse the veteran’s mental mistake in running through the stop sign, and the manager pulled him aside later and told him so.

“Nobody’s veteran enough here not to be talked to,” Acta said.

Batista’s gaffe was magnified all the more a few minutes later when Guzman laced a triple to center. Lopez scored to make it 7-5, but had Batista still been on base, the lead would have been trimmed to one.

And when the Nationals added another run in the seventh, the game would have been tied. Instead, they went quietly over the final two innings (failing to put a man on against either Pirates setup man Salomon Torres or closer Matt Capps) and wound up suffering a one-run loss that might be difficult to put behind them.

“What’s hard to see is the next guy gets a triple,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “So, man, if he would’ve stopped, maybe. There’s too many if’s in baseball, and you can’t live play to play. … It’s unfortunate, but that’s baseball.”

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