- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

SAN DIEGO — Matt Chico walked to the mound at Petco Park last night and received a warm welcome from a fairly large gathering of friends and family seated behind the third-base dugout. This was a homecoming for the Washington Nationals rookie left-hander, some 3,000 miles and three time zones removed from his new home, and everything appeared to be in place for a happy return to San Diego.

If only it lasted. Despite getting off to a positive start and opening up with three shutout innings, Chico collapsed in the fourth, allowing five runs on three hits and three walks. And when his teammates couldn’t take advantage of a beaten-up Padres pitching staff, the Nationals wound up suffering a 7-3 loss that perhaps didn’t have to be.

Washington (9-19) was in position to earn its first series victory of the season with a win but squandered a number of opportunities and wound up leaving town with its second straight loss.

The Nationals appeared to be in good shape when Padres starter Clay Hensley left the game before the third with a strained right groin. San Diego manager Bud Black was forced to ask his bullpen to churn out seven innings just to get through this one, a seemingly advantageous scenario for the Nationals.

But the visitors couldn’t seize the moment. Relievers Doug Brocail and Heath Bell combined to throw three perfect innings, and by the time Washington pushed two runs across against Cla Meredith in the seventh, it was too late.

“Shoot, we had a few chances there to get back into the ballgame and we didn’t,” first baseman Robert Fick said. “It’s real frustrating, just because of the way the season’s going.”

With some smarter baserunning, the Nationals might have made this one a little more interesting. Fick’s two-run double off Meredith cut the deficit to 5-3, and Kory Casto’s subsequent drive to deep center looked like it would bring another run in. But Fick got hung up watching center fielder Mike Cameron chase down the fly ball, so even when it fell in for a hit, Fick couldn’t advance past third.

“Bad read,” he said.

“Regardless, it’s one out. You’ve got to go halfway anyways,” manager Manny Acta said. “If he doesn’t catch the ball, he scores. If he does catch the ball and you can’t tag up, you’re still on second base with two outs and you’ll be able to score on a single. That’s just a baserunning blunder.”

Fick wound up stuck there when pinch-hitter Dmitri Young fouled out to the catcher and Felipe Lopez grounded out to end the inning. The Padres then added two insurance runs in the eighth to quash any realistic hopes of a comeback.

It didn’t help matters when Chico imploded in the fourth and left his team in a big hole.

Coming off a win over the New York Mets five days earlier, the 23-year-old (who grew up in nearby Fallbrook, Calif.) looked poised to duplicate the feat in front of 30 to 40 well-wishers. He cruised through the first three innings, allowing one hit and one walk while keeping his pitch count to a minimum.

And just as was the case in his last outing, he was handed an early lead by his teammates, who scored in the first inning for only the second time all season. A double and stolen base by Lopez put the leadoff man on third before most of the crowd of 22,153 had settled in, and Ryan Church’s RBI single to center brought Lopez home with the night’s first run.

But Chico (2-3) couldn’t take advantage of the lead. He came unglued in the fourth, surrendering a one-out triple to Khalil Greene, then walking the next two batters and allowing a sacrifice fly that put San Diego on top 2-1.

“The three walks in the fourth inning just killed me,” he said. “That was the outcome of the game, I thought.”

If only Chico had been able to keep the margin at one run, he might have had a shot to win this game. Instead, he allowed a bloop double down the right-field line to Geoff Blum that scored another run and a well-stroked double to Marcus Giles that brought home two more to make it 5-1.

With that, Chico’s night was over. He made the long walk back to the dugout, receiving less applause than he did when he first emerged on the field some 90 minutes earlier, his homecoming having gone awry.

“Just poor command,” Acta said of his young starter’s troubles. “When you throw more balls than strikes at this level, good things are not going to happen. He was a few pitches away from getting out of it, but unfortunately that fly ball dropped in there. But still, you have to throw more strikes at this level.”

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