Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Craig Stammen pitched well enough to win, but that wasn't enough today.
What if only one of those key moments in the Nationals' 5-4 loss to the Giants today had gone the other way? Might we be talking now about an impressive series victory at AT&T Park instead of a frustrating loss?
"It's bear hunting," reliever Tyler Walker said. "Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you. Too bad we were on the bad end of it today."
You can play the woulda-coulda-shoulda game 162 times a year. And in the end, it all usually evens out. But you feel like the majority of Nats' games come down to these one or two key moments, you're not imagining things.
Twenty-seven of the Nationals' 48 games this season have been decided by one or two runs. (They're 16-11 in those games.) More recently, 17 of their last 22 games have been decided by one or two runs. (They're only 8-9 over that span.)
This just seems to be the identity of the 2010 Nats, who rarely put together enough offense to blow someone out but rarely get such poor pitching that they can't keep things close.
Such was the case again this afternoon along McCovey Cove, where a tight ballgame turned the Giants' way during the deciding seventh inning. When the inning began, the Nationals held a 3-2 lead, buoyed by early home runs from Dunn and Josh Willingham and some effective pitching from starter Craig Stammen. And when Dunn connected off Zito for what briefly looked like his second homer of the day, everything seemed under control.
But Dunn's blast landed on a narrow concrete ledge high above the right-field fence and bounced back onto the field. First-base umpire Casey Moser immediately ruled the ball in play, and Dunn coasted into second with a double. From the Nats dugout, though, players and coaches threw their arms out and signaled it should have been a home run.
The crew convened under the stands to watch a replay and quickly returned upholding the call, which according to the ballpark ground rules, was correct.
Had Dunn merely hit the ball 12 inches farther, none of this would have been up for debate.
"I hit it good enough to be a homer, but I know here you've got to hit it good," he said. "I wasn't sure if it was going to be a homer or not, but apparently it wasn't."
The Nats wound up scoring one run that inning instead of two, and that proved costly in the bottom of the seventh when the Giants turned Dunn's error, a passed ball by new backup catcher Carlos Maldonado, Schierholtz's single on Burnett's down-and-away slider, Andres Torres' broken-bat double to right and Freddy Sanchez's two-run single to left off Walker into three runs.
Bang, bang, bang. Before any of them had time to process what happened, the Nationals' 4-2 lead was a 5-4 deficit.
"It's tough, because I felt like I made good pitches," said Burnett, who was charged with the loss. "And going back looking at the video, they were good pretty good pitches. Schierholtz did a great job of hitting. A broken bat's just bad luck, too. Combined, it looks pretty bad. But at the same time, I made good pitches, so you can't get too upset at yourself."
The Nationals weren't so much upset at themselves as they showered and dressed this afternoon as they were upset at the circumstances. In a season that has already been full of nip-and-tuck games, this was another one that somehow got away.
"I think everybody collectively, all of us, can say, 'Man, I could have done a little more,'" manager Jim Riggleman said. "Me, myself, the coaching staff, the players, everybody feels like, 'Boy, if I could have done a little something else, maybe we win that ballgame.'
"That's the way you want them to feel. You don't want anybody to be satisfied with their performance. You want them to feel like we could have won that ballgame, agonize over it a little bit and then shower it off and forget about it and go get the next one tomorrow."
From what we've seen over the last two months, the Nationals will have no trouble wiping the slate clean tomorrow and coming back with a strong effort in San Diego.
But the longer they linger around the .500 mark and around the fringes of a pennant race, the more you're likely to look back at today's game as a golden opportunity gone awry.