Saturday, April 9, 2011, 10:44 p.m.
Updated at 12:07 a.m.
By Mark ZuckermanNationals Insider
NEW YORK -- Jerry Hairston has played 1,120 games in the big leagues, spending time at seven different positions around the diamond, everything but pitcher and catcher. And if a manager asked him to do either of those, he'd probably jump at the opportunity.
When you make your living as a utilityman, you have to have the confidence in yourself to be able to shift from position to position, knowing you can be counted on to play each of them with aplomb.
"I pride myself, wherever I'm at," Hairston said. "I make the plays, period. Whether I'm playing short, center. No excuse."
So Hairston made no excuses for his botched play on Carlos Beltran's relatively routine flyball to left in the sixth inning Saturday night at Citi Field, the play that more than anything defined the Nationals' 8-4 loss to the Mets.
"I just missed it, flat-out," he said. "I put us behind the 8-ball tonight. I really feel responsible for the loss."
There were other contributing factors, of course. Tom Gorzelanny, despite an overall effective pitching performance, did surrender a pair of homers to Beltran and two-run triple to Ike Davis moments after the Hairston error. Rookie reliever Brian Broderick again struggled against major-league hitters and let the Mets expand their lead late. And a lineup that has had all kinds of trouble producing in the clutch was at it again, going 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
"A lot of things happened in the game," manager Jim Riggleman said. "We had some opportunities early in the game to add on to the lead we had. ... I don't point to any one thing that happened in the game."
Still, if Hairston makes the routine catch in the sixth, there's no telling how the game's outcome might have changed.
The Nationals led 4-3 at the time, with a runner on first and one out. Beltran sent the ball soaring toward left field, and for a brief instant many in the crowd of 31,696 thought he had just connected on his third homer of the night. Hairston, though, knew Beltran had just gotten under it, and so he jogged to his left to make the play just in front of the warning track.
And then, just as he was about to stick out his glove, Hairston thought he heard footsteps. He thought center fielder Rick Ankiel was bearing down on him and might be attempting to make the play himself. Ankiel, of course, was nowhere in the immediate vicinity, but Hairston didn't realize it. So he short-armed the play, and the ball glanced off his glove for only his seventh error in 317 career games in the outfield.
"I just felt something," he said. "I felt like: Catch it, maybe brace for a collision. For whatever reason, I felt that. But I've got to catch the ball. And I didn't."
Two batters later, Davis roped his two-run triple to right-center, giving the Mets the lead. The Nationals had chances to tie it back up or even take the lead, but after putting two men on with nobody out in the eighth saw Ankiel and Danny Espinosa strike out and pinch-hitter Matt Stairs ground out to strand both runners on base.
And when Ryan Zimmerman whiffed at a 1-2 changeup from Francisco Rodriguez with two outs and a man on third in the ninth, the Nationals' latest frustrating loss was complete. They're now batting .162 with runners in scoring position, third-worst in the majors ahead of only the Dodgers and Rays.
"It's baseball, weird things happen," said Michael Morse, who went 1-for-3 to "raise" his average to .130. "We were in that game right up to the last out. I think this team is going to play like this the whole year."
Eight games into the 2011 season, though, the Nationals have made a habit more out of committing fundamental mistakes than doing the little things needed to win. This road trip began with a 10th-inning dropped flyball by Jayson Werth in Florida. On Saturday, Hairston nearly duplicated the gaffe, one that was equally as costly to the Nationals' chances.
This hasn't been an easy week for Hairston, who signed over the winter for 2 million but now finds himself 0-for-9 at the plate having committed a huge error in the field while also getting thrown out on the bases in a crucial situation Tuesday night.
He's certainly had better weeks over the last 14 years. Which gives him confidence there will be better weeks ahead.
"I messed up, and it hurts a little bit," Hairston said. "But the good thing about it, what separates major-leaguers is you've got to bounce back. I've done it throughout my career. And I intend to do that."
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.