Botched call sets tone for Nationals loss

Botched call sets tone for Nationals loss
September 16, 2012, 1:25 am
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ATLANTA -- The call that turned Saturday's ballgame upside-down and set the Braves on their way to a 5-4 victory seemed obvious to everyone in a Nationals uniform.

Adam LaRoche's left foot never lost contact with first base -- "I was sure," the veteran said later -- and Martin Prado should have been called out on what looked like a routine groundout to open the bottom of the sixth.

So when Marvin Hudson signaled safe, Davey Johnson didn't know what else to do but bolt out of the Turner Field visitors dugout and let the 48-year-old umpire have it.

"I knew," the 69-year-old manager said. "Even with these old eyes, I knew I was right. I didn't need a replay. And I'm thinking: Here's a young man, right on top of it. Obviously he had to be out of position."

So Johnson asked Hudson to confer with his crew mates, thinking perhaps someone else had a better angle of the play. Only three innings earlier, these same umpires had convened and reversed a call, allowing Ian Desmond to advance to third base on a wild pitch.

Hudson, though, refused to ask for any help. That really set Johnson off, and ultimately led to his first ejection of the season.

Of greater concern to the Nationals: Four pitches later, Edwin Jackson left a fastball over the plate to Jason Heyward, who belted it deep to right-center for the two-run homer that tied this game 4-4 and made the blown call sting even worse.

"We don't need to give them a little added momentum here," Johnson said. "Get some help. Obviously he was blocked off or something. That's it, really. I probably overreacted, but it was really a critical point in the ballgame. My pitcher pitched a heck of a ballgame. We had a lead. We don't need to give them any gifts."

Little did Johnson know at the time the Nationals would give the Braves three even bigger gifts two innings later, with the game really on the line. Handed the ball for the bottom of the eighth in a 4-4 game by bench coach Randy Knorr (filling in as manager following the ejection), reliever Ryan Mattheus issued back-to-back walks to load the bases, then grazed No. 8 hitter Andrelton Simmons with an inside fastball. That forced the go-ahead run across the plate and sent the Nationals to their second consecutive, one-run loss to their chief division rivals.

"I didn't even give us a chance to win that game," Mattheus said. "I've got to go out and I've got to throw strikes. If I get beat throwing strikes, it's a little easier to swallow. I can't remember that happening any time in the past, that I can remember. It's inexcusable."

Thus, in the span of 24 hours, the Nationals saw their commanding, 8 12-game lead over the Braves drop to 6 12. There are still only 17 games to play, and it would still require a massive collapse combined with a major resurgence, but the Nats understand they're facing something of a must-win situation Sunday night on national TV to prevent their collars from clenching up a bit too tight for comfort.

"You don't want to get swept anywhere, especially against the team behind you, so it's a big game," LaRoche said. "I think they're all pretty big from here on out. But we've got a chance to really gain some ground against these guys. Had two close ones, lost 'em. Come out tomorrow, hopefully take one."

There were reasons beyond the missed call and Mattheus' inability to find the strike zone for this loss. Staked to an early 4-0 lead on LaRoche's 30th homer of the season and two more runs as a direct result of some wretched Atlanta defense, the Nationals watched as Jackson gave back all four runs.

The right-hander, making his first career start in his hometown, surrendered only four hits over 5 13 innings, but all four went for extra bases: Freddie Freeman's triple and Dan Uggla's double in the second inning, Freeman's homer in the fourth inning and then Heyward's crushing homer in the sixth inning.

"Anytime you get a lead like that and you're the starting pitcher, and you come out of the game and that lead isn't there, that's always tough," Jackson said. "My job is to go out there and secure the lead, regardless of the calls being made."

The Nationals lineup, meanwhile, turned stone-cold silent after the early explosion. They managed only five hits after LaRoche's homer in the first, and what few opportunities they had were squandered by their inability to put the ball in play.

One day after striking out a season-high 17 times, the Nationals whiffed 12 more times, with Danny Espinosa earning his second straight Golden Sombrero for a four-strikeout performance.

They did manage to make things interesting in the ninth against oft-unhittable closer Craig Kimbrel, with Chad Tracy stroking a one-out single to left and pinch-runner Eury Perez swiping second base and advancing to third on a wild throw.

But neither Steve Lombardozzi nor Tyler Moore could put the ball into play, each rookie striking out with the tying run 90 feet away.

Thus the Nationals trudged off the field with another disheartening loss in an eminently winnable game. They had plenty to fret over at night's end, but they also couldn't help but wonder whether the entire storyline might have been different had a botched call not been made. Or, at the very least, had an umpire out of position simply sought help from his mates.

"I thought maybe they'd get together again and get it right," Johnson said. "It wasn't meant to be, and I think it was a big run. That was a big run. But it's like crying over spilled milk. It's over."