Nationals caught in a fog in Chicago

Nationals caught in a fog in Chicago
June 27, 2014, 12:15 am
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CHICAGO — Denard Span saw the ball go off Luis Valbuena’s bat, looked up to the sky and saw nothing but a cool fog that had enveloped Wrigley Field in the bottom of the sixth inning Thursday night. So the Nationals center fielder did the only thing he could in that moment: Throw his arms out helplessly and hope to avoid disaster.

“I didn’t even know it was coming at me, to be honest with you,” he said. “I didn’t know where it was. I finally figured that the ball was coming towards me, because everybody was looking at me and pointing in my direction. But it is scary, because … once I figured out the ball was coming towards me, I didn’t want to look up. Because the last thing I wanted was to let a ball hit me in my pretty face.”

Span could laugh a bit at the end of the night about the strangest moment of a strange night in Wrigleyville, because though that ball hit in his general direction turned into a gift triple for Valbuena, that wasn’t the play that sent the Nationals to a 5-3 loss to the Cubs.

There were other mistakes made, particularly during what proved to be the pivotal seventh inning, but thankfully none were the byproduct of the highly unusual weather conditions on this cool, moist, late-June evening one mile west of Lake Michigan.

“I’ve seen it on TV, never experienced it live,” said manager Matt Williams, who played much of his career in San Francisco. “It’s difficult if that ball goes in the air. … It’s not like rain, where you’ve got radar and you can see: ‘OK, we’ll delay it 15 minutes and it’ll be gone.’ You just have no idea. But both teams had to play with it.”

The mistakes that truly cost the Nationals their series opener against Chicago came in a variety of situations. Doug Fister labored through an uncharacteristic, 39-pitch inning, giving up three runs in the process. Ryan Zimmerman was easily thrown out at the plate in the second inning after a curious send by third base coach Bobby Henley. Span, after delivering a clutch, game-tying double in the top of the seventh, was caught straying too far off second base and brought the Nats’ rally to a screeching halt. And then Craig Stammen immediately gave back both runs in the bottom of the inning, killing what momentum had begun to tilt their way.

Start with Fister, who managed to post his seventh quality start in 10 outings this season but was done in by a laborious fourth inning in which he allowed four hits and needed 39 pitches to face only seven batters.

“They battled well tonight,” the right-hander said. “I didn’t execute a couple pitches, got them out over the middle of the plate, up in the zone, whatever it may be, and they capitalized on them. … A lot of shoulda, woulda, couldas. It’s just a matter of going out and getting it done. Five days from now, we’ll go back out and get it done.”

Despite the 3-0 deficit, the Nationals clawed their way back, getting one run in the sixth on Anthony Rendon’s RBI single and then tying the game one inning later on Span’s shot off the right-field wall. That big hit came moments after Williams decided to send Fister to plate instead of pinch-hitter Scott Hairston, with Fister executing a perfect sacrifice bunt but putting the pressure on Span to deliver against left-hander Travis Wood.

“Denard had just doubled the at-bat before, and their starter is going deep in the game,” Williams said. “They’ve seen him. That would be his fourth time coming up. It’s a situation where we can get guys over, and Denard came through. He was seeing the ball really good tonight. Figure we’d get those two guys in scoring position and tie it with one swing as opposed to trying to go after it with more than one.”

“Honestly, I knew whether he decided to bunt there or not that I was going to have to have a big at-bat coming in either way,” Span said. “But obviously knowing that [Williams] did that … it made me feel good, I guess. In the moment, I’m not really thinking about that. I’m just trying to get a good pitch and drive in those runs, or at least drive in one run, if anything.”

The game now tied, Williams turned to the majors’ most-effective bullpen through the season’s first half. Stammen, though, immediately gave both runs right back, allowing a 1-out double to No. 8 hitter Darwin Barney, then walking pinch-hitter Chris Coghlan, then allowing a 2-run double to Justin Ruggiano on a 2-1 fastball down the middle.

“Gotta shut them down after we get the momentum and keep the momentum somehow,” Stammen said. “And I made a couple pitches that got the momentum in their favor and they capitalized.”