A Bump in the Road -- For three innings it looked like another quality start for a Nationals pitcher. According to Tom Boswell's column earlier today, the Nats' starting pitchers had allowed three runs or less in 18 of the Nats' last 22 games, coming into tonight's game. Making his first start in front of family and friends in his native San Diego, Matt Chico weathered a bunch of hard hit fly balls, but did not allow a hit until there were two outs in the third inning, when a ball dropped just in front of the onrushing Austin Kearns' glove.
Chico ran into some considerable trouble in the fourth inning, allowing three bases on balls and five runs. He surrendered an RBI triple by Khalil Greene, and then walked the bases loaded. The Nats' rookie pitcher couldn't quite shut the Padres down. First, he gave up a sacrifice fly, and then got truly unlucky, when Geoff Blum hit a run-scoring bloop double that landed just inside the right field foul line, and another double to Marcus Giles that plated two more runs. When the dust settled, Chico was out of the game, and the Nats were suddenly trailing 5-1.
The Nats simply do not have the hitting to come back from that kind of deficit, especially against the quality pitching the Padres threw at them. Help may be on the way, though. The Nats dealt Chris Snelling, who had been a real drag on the team, to Oakland, in exchange for Ryan Langerhans, whom the A's had just picked up from Atlanta. Langerhans had only three hits in over 40 at-bats with the Braves, but he is a better hitter than that. He had been expected to be the Braves left fielder, but his struggles forced the Braves to look elsewhere. Langerhans gives the Nats increased depth in the outfield, and first base.
The Nats got off to an unusually good start, scoring in the first inning for only the second time this season. Felipe Lopez led off with a double, stole third, and scored on a one-out hit by Ryan Church. The Padres' starter, Chad Hensley left the game in the third inning, with an injury, but that only meant the Nats had to face the Padres' bullpen, which has been nothing short of spectacular, from top to bottom.
The Nationals also put together a decent rally in the 7th inning, scoring the first two runs that Clay Meredith had allowed this year. It should have been three runs, but Robert Fick really botched up things, when he failed to score on a one-out double by Kory Casto. The ball carried to the wall, over the head of the centerfielder, Mike Cameron, but Fick ran back to second base to tag up. At the time, that mistake appeared as if it might be crucial, since it forced the Nats to play for two runs over the final two innings. It became a moot point when the Nats gave back two runs in the eighth inning.
Though they have dropped two of three to the Padres, the Nats are looking like a much improved team these days. Casto is an improvement over Snelling, and, tomorrow, the team will add Langerhans to the roster. Monday, they are expected to activate both Cristian Guzman and Nook Logan. Manny Acta will have some decisions to make about who will stay on the roster.
They will have an extra outfielder and/or first baseman. Presumably the Nats will send Casto back down, but if he hits some more doubles between now and Monday, Acta may have to think twice about that move. They are almost certain to trim one pitcher from the roster. That pitcher will probably be Ray King, who surrendered a ninth inning home run tonight, that really put the game out of reach.
From the Minor Leagues: It looks like the Nats may have a phenom at Hagerstown. Cory van Allen has struck out 18 batters, without allowing a single base on balls. Van Allen struck out the astounding total of 12 batters in five innings last Saturday. If he keeps that up, he will leapfrog Colin Ballester as the Nats' top pitching prospect.
American League: I don't write much about the junior circuit, but Josh Beckett's turnaround is worth a mention. After dealing future All-Star Hanley Ramirez to acquire Beckett from Florida, the Red Sox were hugely disappointed in his effort last year. He had an E.R.A. above 5.00, and only one other pitcher allowed more home runs. This year, it's a different story. Beckett is 6-0, and the early front-runner for Cy Young. I'm still not sure that the Marlins didn't get the better end of that deal with Ramirez and Anibel Sanchez, but if Beckett can pitch this way all year, the Red Sox faithful will forgive management for dealing Ramirez. Right now, the trade looks better than the infamous one that sent Jeff Bagwell to Houston for Larry Andersen.