June 24, 2010 [LINK / comment]
Nationals sweep the Royals (almost)
More accurately, the Nationals would have swept the Royals were it not for yet another outrageous blown call by an umpire. (See June 4.) Well, let's talk about that disgraceful incident later and start off on a positive note. After all, it was the first time I had ever seen the Nationals play on two consecutive days, and there was plenty to enjoy.
I joined my old friend Dave Givens at the Tuesday evening game against the Kansas City Royals. I thought it would be nice to get lower-deck seats for a change, since all my previous games I had seen at Nationals Park were in the upper levels. The view we had from Section 104 in left field was pretty good, but there was one long fly ball to the corner in center field that we couldn't see, because of the "Red Porch" protrusion. Nyjer Morgan caught the ball, fortunately.
I was hoping that one of the right-handed Nat sluggers would send a long ball in our direction. Sure enough, in the fourth inning, Josh Willingham hit a lead-off home run that landed just a few rows in front of us, about 30 feet to the right. It bounced into the back rows, and whoever snagged that ball is a lucky guy (or girl), because it was Willingham's 100th career home run. Congratulations, Josh! ("The Hammer" also hit two doubles during the game, but neither one resulted in any runs being scored.)
But that was only the beginning: The very next batter, Pudge Rodriguez, singled, and so did the two batters after him, Roger Bernadina and Adam Kennedy. In the middle of the rally, the western skies grew dark and thunder was heard. Before you knew it a trickle turned into a heavy downpour, and the ground crew scampered onto the field and did their job quickly and efficiently. I grumbled about the virtual absence of any upper-deck overhang at Nationals Park, obliging most fans to seek shelter in the ample concourse. Then it occurred to me that this may have been a deliberate design element: Rain forces fans to stroll through what is essentially a big shopping mall food court, tempting them with all sorts of foods, beverages, and souvenirs. Ka-ching!
To my great relief, the rain dwindled away after 15 minutes or so, and play resumed about a half hour after that. The Royals scored a run in the fifth inning, but Adam Dunn came right back with a booming home run that hit the green wall beyond the fence in center field, retaking a three-run lead. It turned out to be a decisive insurance run, because the embarrassingly shaky closer Matt Capps gave up four hits and two runs in the top of the ninth inning. Fortunately, Jason Kendall hit a pop fly for the third and final out, stranding two base runners. Whew! The final score was 4-3, and starting pitcher Luis Atilano fully deserved his sixth win of the season. Reliever Tyler Clippard should have gotten credit for the save, coming in in the eighth inning after two men had reached base, and getting all three outs. I cannot understand why manager Jim Riggleman keeps putting his trust in Matt Capps; he is becoming a menace to the team, quite frankly. For a complete wrap-up, see MLB.com.
Nats let Strasburg down
I just had to see Stephen Strasburg for myself, so I decided to stay an extra day in Washington and attend the final game of the series against Kansas City. It was an oppressively hot and humid day, and I'm glad I had a seat in the shade. I pitied the thousands of fans on the first base side of the exposed (and expensive!) lower deck, and I hope none of them suffered heat stroke. The Nats had already finished batting practice before I arrived, but I did get fairly close to Strasburg as he tossed the ball near the bullpen in the right field corner:
Strasburg got started on the right foot, striking out lead-off batter Scott Podsednik and retiring the next two batters. A problem emerged in the second inning, however, as two Royals batters got hits to reach base. No runs were scored, but Strasburg gave up more hits in each of the next three innings, including three hits in the fifth which resulted in a run. Strasburg was very fast (upper 90s, just like the temperature) and very accurate (75 strikes in 95 total pitches), but he was too predictable and the Royals batters figured out that all they needed to do was swing the bat and make contact.
The Nationals batters struggled, meanwhile, but Strasburg got his very first major league hit in the third inning. A big opportunity came in the fifth inning, when Josh Willingham walked, then stole second, and then went to third on a single by Pudge Rodriguez. I think he could have made it to home on that play, but with no outs, he probably thought it wasn't worth the risk. Adam Kennedy hit a squibbler toward first base as Willingham was running toward home, but then he panicked and retreated to third, not realizing that first baseman Butler had bobbled the ball. Another chance to score was wasted. Then Ian Desmond struck out, and Stephen Strasburg grounded out to end the inning. Willie Harris (batting average .151) had been in the on-deck circle as a pinch hitter, but Riggleman let Strasburg stay in the game, apparently wanting to give him a chance to win on the mound. I thought a pinch hitter would come in if Desmond had batted in a run, so I am baffled by Riggleman's decision. Harris did pinch hit leading off in the eighth inning, but flew out to left field. Why in the world didn't Mike Morse (batting average .390) get any at-bats for the second game in a row??
But the real drama came in the sixth inning, when the Nats had two men on base with just one out. Adam Dunn stepped up to the plate and hit a line drive to right field, enabling Roger Bernadina to score the tying run -- or so I thought! The fans were cheering with joy until they realized that the umpire had called Bernadina out, prompting a chorus of loud boos. I watched WUSA-TV9 reporter Dave Owens later that night, and was surprised that he didn't even mention that controversy. In contrast, ESPN did highlight the missed call in their game summary. Here are some of the news reports about that crucial play:
Washington Post: [The Nationals] may have had a run stolen in the sixth, when Adam Dunn lasered a single through the shift in right.
Roger Bernadina raced from second, third base coach Pat Listach windmilling him home as Guillén scooped up the ball. The throw sailed, bouncing as Kendall reached to his right. Bernadina slid spikes up into home, his left foot crossing before Kendall swiped his mitt. A jubilant crowd cheered. Home plate umpire Hunter Wendlestedt punched the air -- out. An angry crowd erupted.
"I was shocked," Bernadina said.
MASN: In the sixth, plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt ruled Roger Bernadina's sliding foot didn't beat the throw home from right fielder Guillen on a single by Adam Dunn.
The entire ballpark was stunned, and replays weren't needed to back up Bernadina's case.
"I definitely got in," Bernadina said. "My feet were first before he put a hand on me, but the umpire called me out."
MLB.com: No one on the Nationals argued the call, but the replay showed that Bernadina could have been safe at the plate.
From his view, Riggleman felt Bernadina was out, and Willingham, who was near the on-deck hitter, didn't get a good view of the play. According to Bernadina, home-plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt told him that the ball beat him to the plate. Wendelstedt was not available for comment.
My comment, which was posted on that MLB.com article:
Strasburg performed as well as anyone could expect, but he didn't adjust to the fact that the Royals batters had figured out how to get hits off him. That's a skill he will have to learn. I agree that Mike Morse deserves more playing time, and that Willie Harris, Nyjer Morgan, and Adam Kennedy are of little use to the team. It was Harris's turn to sign autographs yesterday, so maybe that's why Riggleman put him in. But the big issue for me is the blind umpire at home plate, Hunter Wendlestedt. I was at the game, and had a very good view (upper deck, third base side) of the play at the plate, and it was obvious that Bernadina was safe. I could not believe he was called out, and since it changed the outcome of the game, I'm surprised that the media made so little of that blunder, on par with the World Cup soccer referee who disallowed the U.S. goal against Slovenia. I oppose extension of instant replay in baseball, but as others have argued, umpires have to be held accountable somehow.
With two outs, the Nats still had Zimmerman on third and Dunn on first, but Josh Willingham was called out on a count of 2-2, with a pitch that appeared to be low and outside. To express his disgust at the call, Willingham dropped his bat and helmet in front of the umpire. For the next three innings, the Nats got only one more hit, while striking out five times. Final score: 1-0. And thus, I was a witness to the rather ugly first loss of Stephen Strasburg's career, as the Royals avoided being swept. I give their batters credit for getting nine hits off Strasburg, equalling his strikeout total, and to their starting pitcher Brian Bannister, who went six full innings. But that does not change the fact that the Nats were robbed.
Attendance was good, 31,913, but nowhere near a sell-out, as was the case in Strasburg's first two starts in D.C. You can blame the hot weather for that. These two games were the fourth and fifth games I have seen at Nationals Park, and the latter was the very first time I have seen the home team lose there.