- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2011

With tired eyes, Davey Johnson tried to take the blame.

“I take responsibility,” the Washington Nationals manager said. “I balked.”

Over baseball’s 162-game marathon, one can find plenty of moments to second-guess. Johnson discovered his in Wednesday night’s 4-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Why, Johnson wondered, did he let Livan Hernandez start the eighth inning? Johnson hoped for seven solid innings from the rubber-armed starter who hadn’t topped seven innings since June 15. Not a batter more. Then Johnson would pull him.

But Johnson balked. Hernandez started the inning, having allowed only two runs up to that point. His arm, his vast array of pitches felt good. But two singles and an intentional walk to load the bases followed. Then, right-hander Henry Rodriguez, not known for his precision, was summoned from the bullpen into the delicate situation. On his second pitch, he surrendered a two-run single.

This, Johnson admitted, was not the ideal situation for Rodriguez, carrying a triple-digit fastball and the uncanny ability to deliver 12 wild pitches and 36 walks over 47 2/3 innings this season.

On a night when the Nationals struggled to put bat on ball against young Diamondbacks starter Daniel Hudson, the inning crushed hopes of a comeback.

“I felt like if we could stay close,” Johnson said. “We’d have a chance.”

Hudson, the 24-year-old born in Lynchburg, Va., who attended Old Dominion University, kept the Nationals at a comfortable distance.

Johnson thought the pitcher’s unorthodox arm angle kept his team off balance. Ian Desmond, owner of three hits off Hudson, believed it was the cutting fastball. Ryan Zimmerman saw the pitcher work three different pitches in and out of the strike zone and not make significant mistakes over the plate.

Whatever the explanation, Hudson retired 17 of 18 batters at one point. On Tuesday, of course, the Diamondbacks blanked the Nationals. Patience at the plate didn’t work for Washington. Neither did attacking the first pitch.

“I think he’s going to be really good at this level,” Hernandez said, after an 0-for-2 night against the pitcher.

In fact, Hudson was one out from his first professional shutout, after 42 major league starts and 57 more in the minor leagues.

But the Nationals staged a two-pitch rally in the bottom of the ninth inning with two out. Starting in place of the injured Jayson Werth, Laynce Nix smacked a ball over the fence in right field. Then, Jonny Gomes lofted Hudson’s first pitch into the left-field bullpen, a lofty home run that seemed to hang in the dark sky.

“It was a little too late,” Desmond said.

“Some days,” Zimmerman added, “you’re just going to get beat.”

Two pitches later, closer J.J. Putz retired Wilson Ramos on a weak foul ball up the right-field line.

That left Johnson slouched in a room with the air conditioning turned low enough to raise goosebumps. His forehead bore the imprint of his hat’s brim, his face the toll of the season’s 66th loss. Sometimes, he said, managers lose games.

As many opportunities as baseball’s 162 games provide to second-guess, they also provide chances to do things differently the next day. A chance to write a different story.

• Nathan Fenno can be reached at nfenno@washingtontimes.com.

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