Hold on to something secure, I'm about to blow your mind. The Washington Nationals are a bad baseball team. I know! Taking on the first-place St Louis Cardinals in front of 18 000 brave masochists with me watching from home, the Nats miraculously found themselves embroiled in quite a battle. Back and forth they went, a home run by Albert Pujols was matched by discount, in-house brand Ryan Zimmerman until the ninth inning arrived with the game tied at 4. The Nats survived 5 walks and 4 wild pitches from starter Daniel Cabrera, surely an omen of a karmic correction to come.
The top of the ninth inning began with new (old) pitcher Julian Tavarez facing the prodigious Pujols. Handsome Jules Tavarez coaxes a ground ball out of Pujols on the first pitch; bullet dodged. Slugger Ryan Ludwick fouls off a few tough pitches before earning a tough walk. You hate to see relievers issue free passes, but you hope they'll work through it. Unless you're the Nationals, of course. If you're the Nats you understand all manner of shit is due to hit the fan. Here we go, in numerical order of atrocity :
- America's Boyfriend Rick Ankiel slashes a ball towards the left field corner. Adam Dunn gives a game effort, chasing the ball a long way only to come just short. At this point I'll note that a game effort from Adam Dunn comes in just behind an average effort from an average outfielder. Ludwick scores, 5-4 Cards
- Career minor league Joe Thurston works another walk. Thurston drops his bat and sprints to first base in a most Ecksteinian fashion. More portents of doom! Two on and the wife asks "why the hell did he run to first like that?" Trouble in the Beltway, my dear. You just wait.
- Jason LaRue is hit SQUARE IN THE CHEST by the fourth pitch of his at bat. At this point Santana Moss complained to his agent that of the 1044 receiving yards he tallied in 2008, not one pass hit him as squarely between the numbers as Tavarez's pitch to LaRue. Bases Bloated
- Rookie Tyler Greene, playing in his first ever big league game, steps in to face Tavarez (just short of 800 career appearances) with the bases loaded in a one run game. Greene chops a weak bouncer down the third base line. ZImmerman charges, realizing his only play his to first if he can barehand the ball. Which he can't. The ball slips off his fingertips - everybody's safe. 6-4 Cardinals, ball still in play.
- Everyone but Hustlin' Joe Thurston that is. Seeing the ball get past Zimmerman, Thurston turns at third and chugs for home! Cristian Guzman dashes over from sorta covering third base, grabs the ball in foul territory and heaves a strike to the plate; beating Thurston by a good 6 feet. Jesus Flores, in his haste to make an easy play difficult, muffs the catch allowing Thurston to slide in safely to plate the second run from a ball hit 70 feet. 7-4 Cards, runners on the corners, Acta on suicide watch.
- Having seen enough of Tavarez's pock-marked visage, Manny Acta calls Joel Hanrahan from the bullpen. The erstwhile closer's had a rough go this season, sporting a FIP over 7. Good thing Fielding Independent Pitching doesn't count runs cashed by balks, as that is what Hanrahan promptly does. 8-4 Cards, runner on second, fans on the way home.
- Rookie Tyler Greene decides to up his fantasy value by stealing third base.
- Pinch hitter Brian Barden hits a sac fly to Austin Kearns in right field. 9-4 Cardinals, nobody on, this ship has sailed.
A fly ball mercifully ends the inning but not before the Cardinals manage to sneak in another infield hit for good measure. The damage on both the scoreboard and the psyche of a diminishing fanbase was already long done. 5 runs (3 unearned) turned a close game into a mind-bending laugher in one half inning.
The Nationals suffered their 16th loss of the season in a most spectacular way. There are sure to be many, many more losses this year, likely in more dramatic ways. That is what makes this loss so much more tragic: it somehow seemed inevitable despite being so unusual.
Image courtesy Comcast via D.C. Sports Bog