Sun wreaks havoc with Nats in loss to Brewers

Sun wreaks havoc with Nats in loss to Brewers
September 23, 2012, 11:22 pm
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There's apparently something about the September sun at Nationals Park, the way it hovers just above the third base stands in late afternoon and aligns itself perfectly with routine flyballs hit to center and right fields.

"Once 4:05 comes around, you've got the shadows at the plate," Bryce Harper said. "You've got the left field stands, with the red seats or whatever. And then you've got the sun monster behind. It's just something that happens, and you've just got to play with it and hopefully it doesn't happen any more."

"It" is the stomach-churning feeling outfielders get when they realize they can't see a routine flyball fast approaching them from underneath that bright sun. "It" was a feeling both Harper and Jayson Werth experienced Sunday afternoon, each at critical moments during what would become a 6-2 loss to the Brewers.

Harper completely lost sight of Ryan Braun's fourth-inning flyball to center, letting it fall to the ground for a gift double. Braun wound up scoring Milwaukee's first run of the game.

"You can't catch what you can't see, you know?" Harper said with a shrug. "Nothing you can do about it."

Three innings later, Werth suffered the exact same fate, losing Carlos Gomez's flyball to right with the bases loaded and helping turn a 2-2 game into a comfortable lead for the Brewers.

"You guys saw the game," Werth said, walking past reporters without answering questions.

It would be one thing if these freak plays could be chalked up to one bad afternoon with a bad sky. But the exact same thing happened to Harper 14 days earlier, and there's legitimate reason to wonder if it might happen again.

The Nationals have four more home games this season, and two of them (tomorrow's series finale against the Brewers and the Oct. 3 season finale against the Phillies) are afternoon games.

Worse, there's a decent chance the Nationals will be scheduled to play one or more afternoon playoff games next month, creating the possibility of a similar play wreaking havoc at a most inopportune moment.

Which begs what may sound like a silly question but may actually have merit: Is there anything at all the Nationals can do to try to prevent this from happening again? (Aside, of course, from engineering a 2-square mile sun blocker and installing it on South Capitol Street in the next two weeks.)

"Well, we may come out early and try to shag some flyballs," manager Davey Johnson said. "Maybe when we have a night game or something. Seems to be around 2-3 o'clock when they're having trouble. Outfield coordinator Bo Porter was starting to play them around so they'd get a little better angle on the sun. And then they started hitting the ball where we weren't playing. Strategy, nothing worked today."

To be sure, there were other reasons the Nationals lost this game. Their lineup squandered multiple opportunities to bring home runners in scoring position. Their pitching staff surrendered 15 hits and issued four walks, giving the Brewers plenty of opportunities to score (which they did).

Really, though, the tone for the entire afternoon was established several days ago when Johnson named Chien-Ming Wang his starter. After Tuesday's rainout forced Wednesday's doubleheader, the Nationals had no choice but to use a spot starter for this game. And of the available options -- Wang, Craig Stammen, Zach Duke -- Johnson felt Wang was his best.

The veteran right-hander hadn't started a big-league game since June 19 and he hadn't started any game since Sept. 1 for Class AAA Syracuse, so the Nationals knew entering this one the odds of a long start were slim.

Wang actually pitched better than expected, keeping the ball in the strike zone and forcing the Brewers into hitting mostly groundballs. But a 30-pitch fourth inning -- aided in part by Harper's lost flyball -- left him with 69 pitches overall and left Johnson to turn to his bullpen early.

"As a player, I definitely want to keep pitching today," Wang said through interpreter John Hsu. "But I know I only have three days off since his last relief appearance and probably they consider for that reason, so they took me out."

Five different Nationals each pitched one inning of relief, none of them retiring the side. Ryan Mattheus took the brunt of the abuse, allowing three runs on four hits in the seventh, though again that inning was prolonged by Werth's misplay.

"I thought we played well," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "Balls we had chances on, we made plays. What are you going to do? Tip your cap to the sun."

All of it added up to a loss, the Nationals' sixth in their last nine games. The Braves' 2-1 victory in Philadelphia allowed them to close the gap in the NL East to 4 12 games and leave the Nationals' magic number to clinch the division at 6.

They'll be back on the field tomorrow for another 1:05 p.m. matinee against Milwaukee.

The forecast: 69 degrees and abundant sunshine.