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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Nats comeback falls short, lose to Tigers 9-8 OR The greatest rally that almost was.

Tonight's game was one of the most fun loses I've ever attended.

The visiting Detroit Tigers, the reigning American League pennant winners, came to town (for the first time since 1971? I THINK so...) and I fully expected a hard-fought game. Nats manager Manny Acta likes to say about a team like the Tigers, "We have to play perfect ball to beat a team like that." He's said that again and again all season, and truer words were never spoken. The Nats didn't beat themselves tonight necessarily, they DID put themselves in positions to win, but they also made some ill-timed mistakes (are there ever such things as "timely" mistakes? Note to self: investigate this phenomenon on the next off-day).

The game began well enough, with Nats starter Matt Chico getting through the first inning alright, giving up 2 runs in the 2nd, and no runs in the 3rd, and 1 run in the 4th, and the Nats had 1 run to their credit, so it was a close game. But then came the "frightful fifth".

In the 5th inning, the wheels fell off the proverbial bus. Chico pitched to only 5 batters, but he gave up 5 runs, and reliever Winston Abreau gave up 1 run. Suddenly, the score was 9-1, and it looked as though the rout was on. As a fan, I sat there thinking to myself, "Well, that's why the Tigers are the defending AL champions. They are a very good team with superb pitching and great hitters, and they play terrific defense. I hope it doesn't get any worse, because then it becomes embarrassing." My "inner dialogue" reminded me of Col. Henry Blake in the movie M*A*S*H, during the football game scenes where the visiting team keeps scoring and each time he exclaims, "Well, it's only 7 points..." It was tough to take. But then came the "sensational sixth".

In the 6th inning, the Nats began to rally. They scored 4 runs and suddenly the score was 9-5 and things seemed desperate, but not hopeless. The rally began in earnest when Cristian Guzman got on base and then Felipe Lopez hit a triple, scoring Guzman, then Ryan Zimmerman singled to score Lopez, with help from an error on the Tiger's shortstop. Then Dmitri Young singled, and Austin Kearns walked, loading the bases. That was enough for Tiger's manager Jim Leyland, as he took out their starter, Mike Maroth. The new Tiger's reliever, Bobby Seay, then allowed Ryan Church to single, scoring Ryan Zimmerman. Brian Schneider then came up and hit a sacrifice fly, scoring Dmitri Young. Score? 9-5 and suddenly the thought of a comeback victory didn't seem preposterous.

Now R.F.K. was abuzz with excitement. We had a BALLGAME on our hands, not a scheduled execution. The numerous Tiger's fans in attendance quickly lost their brash cockiness and began to wonder what the heck was going on. The Nats weren't tethered goats for the Tigers to devour, these guys were fighting their guts out and refusing to roll over and die.

The 7th and 8th innings were scoreless, and Jon Rauch held the Tigers to no runs in the top of the 9th, so then came the bottom of the 9th. The Nats managed to score 3 runs: Ryan Langerhans doubled, Robert Fick singled, Cristian Guzman tripled, scoring Langerhans and Fick, then Felipe Lopez singled, scoring Guzman. Score: 9-8. After Zimmerman singled sending Lopez to second, Kearns grounded into a fielder's choice which allowed Lopez to advance to 3rd, but Ronnie Belliard, pinch-hitting for Rauch, grounded out to end the inning.
There was a collective groan from the Nats faithful, but it was a groan of resignation. We didn't "expect" a win, but the Nats almost gave one to us.

Starter Matt Chico gave up 8 runs on 9 hits, including a homerun and walked 2. He threw 71 pitches in his 4+ innings of work, for 43 strikes (60%). It was his worst start of the season, but given who his opponents were, I think that I can forgive him a little. Relievers Winston Abreau and Saul Rivera each worked 2 innings, with Abreau giving up 1 run on 2 hits. Jon Rauch got closing duties this evening and was almost light's-out strong, allowing no hits.

Ryan Report: Church went 2 for 3 with a walk and an R.B.I., Zimmerman went 1 for 5 with an R.B.I., Langerhans went 1 for 1 with a double, and Austin Ryan Kearns went 1 for 4 with a walk.

Cristian Guzman was a home run short of hitting for the cycle. He has a single, a double and a triple, and 2 R.B.I.'s Felipe Lopez had a triple and 2 R.B.I.'s, and Dmitri Young went 2 for 5. Brian Schneider went 0 for 2 with 2 R.B.I.'s on sacrifices.

Coming straight from work, I didn't make the game until sometime in the 2nd inning. I had to check in with Rico and Ellie and get myself some dinner (more Attman's corned beef).
Howard wasn't at the game (he won't make this series) so I didn't order a beer. It was a hot, 91 degree and steamy night. I'm certain that is why the ball was flying tonight (the Tigers had 2 upper-deck homeruns). For a Monday night game, there were a LOT of fans, over 22,000 reported, but it seemed like more at times. Maybe because most schools are out now.

In the 7th inning, Cristian Guzman fouled-off a ball that SCREAMED past my head. I stood up and ALMOST got it, but it evaded me, just to my left. It was probably slicing, but at first, it looked as though it was heading RIGHT for me. It flew past my head and landed two rows behind me. Now I know why people bring baseball gloves to these games - if I'd have a glove, I might have caught it. No one was hurt, thank goodness. That is the CLOSEST that I've ever come to catching a foul ball. Oh, well. Better luck next time.

After the game ended, I was wandering across the lower bowl of the stadium to see some friends and I happened to spot principle team owner Mark Lerner. And Mark Lerner was SMILING! When do you EVER see a team owner SMILING after a loss, especially such a heartbreaking loss as this one? If there is another owner in the major leagues who gets such sheer joy out of the experience of ownership, then I'd like to know who it is, because I don't think that they have anything on Mark Lerner. Since he and I had chatted on the phone briefly only 3 days ago (for business purposes, NOT anything to do with my blog, though we did discuss baseball and I thoroughly enjoyed our brief chat. He didn't know that I had a blog, and I mentioned it quickly, but I didn't want to belabor our conversation, he's a busier man than I am!) I took the opportunity to just introduce myself to him in as brief a fashion as I could. He seemed pleased to meet me and he knew who I was. I didn't delay him, I could see that he had somewhere to go, but it was nice just to say "hello" to the man. He seems to me to be a genuinely nice guy and the sort of owner that we as fans can be proud to have.* I know that this sounds completely self-serving and possibly disingenuous, but the fact is, we could have wound up with ownership with no vision, owners with a complete unwillingness to do things the right way, looking for the quick fix, the all-out spending on free agents at the expense of the farm system, etc, etc.. The fan nightmare scenarios for ownership are legion, and I honestly feel lucky that we have the ownership group that is in place. It takes an act of faith on the part of a working fan to root for a millionaire team owner, and Mark Lerner is the sort of guy that I can feel happy for when the team wins, because he is a fan himself, and is trying very hard to deliver the best baseball experience possible to other Washington Nationals fans. He has earned our collective good will and doesn't appear for one second to take it for granted, and I don't worry that he ever will.

For the Nats to go toe-to-toe with the defending American League champions and ALMOST pull out a win is pretty terrific for a team that was predicted to be "historically bad" only a little over 2 months ago. This game looked like a laugher, a shake-your-head merciless drubbing bordering upon a savage beating. Once again, the resiliency of this team impresses me.

Now onto Tuesday and let's see if Jason Simontacchi can take game 2 of this series.

*(Yes, I'm aware that Mark Lerner's father, Theodore, is the main principle owner of the team, but Mark Lerner is the public "face" of the ownership group, along with team president and minority owner Stan Kasten, so for all intents and purposes, I feel no qualms about referring to Mark Lerner as the "owner" of the Washington Nationals. I don't mean to slight any of the other members of the ownership group, it's just easy short-hand.)

Post Script: In a column in the Washington Post appearing Tuesday, writer Tom Boswell demonstrated the big difference between a team like the Nationals, who are up and coming and have great chemistry, and the Baltimore Orioles, who are in something of a tailspin this season and just fired their manager, Sam Perlozzo. I think that Boswell's example is brilliant and well-worth taking note of:

Last month, Sam Perlozzo watched as his Orioles batted in the ninth inning against the Nats at RFK Stadium, trailing 4-3. On the top step of the opposite dugout, the entire Washington team was leaning over the railing, rooting for its reliever to get three outs to avoid a sweep by Baltimore. Every Nationals player and coach, as well as several Nats who were in uniform despite being on the disabled list, were all shoulder-to-shoulder, yelling, laughing and analyzing.

Across the field, in dismal contrast, only one Orioles player, Nick Markakis, stood on the top step of the Baltimore dugout -- the only Bird on the rail, the lone player who cared enough to leave his seat to yell for a rally. The Orioles lost."

The bold emphasis is mine. This one bit speaks volumes about the chemistry and character of the 2007 Washington Nationals and also underscored manager Manny Acta's outstanding style of management. I loved reading that, and I hope that you did, too.

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