Monday, May 09, 2005

Confederacy Of Dunces

For the second straight Sunday, sweet thoughts of a series sweep slid away. And, again, in agonizing fashion. You can add this game to the growing list of games we should have won, but didn’t. In a division that looks like it has little margin for error, this is the kind of game you’ll look back at on September 13th, and say “damn.”

The Nationals lost, but they had a lot of help. A Lot.

Blaming the umpires for a loss is one of the oldest and lamest tools in the fan’s box-o-whines. Crap happens sometimes. (Ask Don Denkinger!)

But, crap rarely happens in twos or threes. And crap rarely directly leads to two runs scoring.

Dunce Number One: the homeplate umpire
His was the most wildly unpredictible strike zone we've seen all season. I don't know if the strong wind gusts were bothering him, or if he was partying with Jeff Weaver the night before, but he'll definitely be getting a report from the league after this game. There was a small box about 5 inches by 5 inches in the middle of the plate that he was perfect on. Anywhere else, and it was a crapshoot. He was so incompetent, they could've queued up a pitching machine to machine-gun the same pitch to the same spot 100 times and he'd start inventing new umpire calls, "Barike!" just to be wrong.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) this one affected the Nats as much as it affected the Giants.

Dunce Number Two: the first base umpire
As I posted below Omar Vizquel slid into first base and absolutely stole a call. I always get annoyed when announcers say 'beat him by a step' when clearly it's something like one-tenth of a step. Well, Omar was beaten by a step. Maybe three. It wasn't even particularly close.

It's a smart play by Vizquel. The umps make those calls a lot by sound. And the sound of dirt sliding and the scraping of his body against the bag are enough to rattle the ump a little bit. It's akin to when you don't realize there's a step on the floor. Your body prepares itself to walk on level ground, and when your foot hits where floor should be, it jars you a little bit, and you have to readjust. On a split second decision like that, it takes you out of your element. The same thing happened to the ump. He was made uncomfortable, taken out of his element, and he messed up.

Dunce Number Three: the whole farkin' umpire crew
With the pesky gnat Vizquel on first, Edgardo Alfonzo (much more effective when Rich Eisen said it) lined a double down the left-field line. Some Yahoo! reached out and knocked the ball down, for an easy fan interference call -- an automatic double. Left fielder Brad Wilkerson immediately put his hands over his head to indicate the intereference and the third base umpire followed suit, indicating a dead ball. Runners on second and third, right? Nope.

Although they're technically right in their application of the rule, their intent is wrong. On fan interference plays, the umpires are allowed to make judgement calls to determine where the runners would have been. They awarded Vizquel home plate, the tying run.

I've seen that call once before in a game at Yankee Stadium, where any shot down the line becomes a fan's version of whack-a-mole with the ball. And that call was on a hit and run, where the runner was already to third base by the time the interference was called. Here, Vizquel was probably three strides from hitting the bag at the time interference was called. I don't see how they could have awarded him home. But, they did.

My biggest problem with it is the message it sends to the fans. It would be one thing if they were awarding it to a road team, but to reward the home team's fans is ridiculous. Now, they've learned that the umps might give them an extra base if they can make a play on the ball. Awarding Vizqel home incentivizes the fan's interference, when instead he should be dragged out of the park and keelhauled under one of those kayaks in McCovey Cove.
Despite that, you can't completely blame the Nationals. If they had been able to drive just one more run home, they would have won. They had multiple chances, but just couldn't get that one hit in the clutch. The umpires stunk, but they weren't the sole reason the Nats lost the game. They also had some help from:

Dunce Number Four: Frank Robinson

It's hard to overcome bad umpiring AND incompetent managing.

How does he leave Ryan Church, the team's hottest hitter, on the bench? The guy had the game-winning hit in each of the last two games and had four hits in the last game. We played 13 innings, and there wasn't one AB he could've been used? Yet, JJ Davis got into the game?

I'll even help him out.

When John Rauch came into the game, he absolutely had to doubleswitch Church into the game. Absolutely. Endy Chavez had just made the final out of the inning (his second inning ended of the game) and the pitcher's spot was due up third. Remember, we have a short bullpen, and have already ripped through three relievers. Presumably, he'd want to save Cordero for a lead, or for as late as possible. That leaves Rauch and Zach Day as your other options. You, me, and Frank would probably rather see Rauch throw the ball up there left-handed rather than see Day out there. In short, you needed innings from Rauch.

This was a perfect opportunity to doubleswitch. Church could've batted in the pitcher's slot, and Rauch would have slotted into the spot just vacated by I.E. Chavez. Simple. Elegant.

But, nope. Frank had his head up his ass or was busily taking advice from Miss Cleo on his cell phone. Hey Mon! You Stink!

Rauch came in pitched perfectly, then proceeded to bat third the next inning. It's not for lack of hitting options either. At that point, they still had Carlos Baerga, Tony Blanco, Brian Schneider AND Ryan Church on the bench. Hell, Livan Hernandez would be a good PHer in the right situation. I just can't possibly think of any explanation.

It really came back to bite the Nationals in the ass in the top of the next inning. Cristian Guzman got on and Gary Bennett was up. With a crappy hitter up, and needing just one run, that's a situation that calls for a bunt. But, Frank didn't want to bunt him over because Rauch was on deck. Without the bunt, Bennett slapped the ball on the ground and made two outs. Rauch flailed away and the inning was over.

It didn't have to be that way. /John Edwards

The Nationals have proven they can overcome bad umpiring, and they consistently prove they can overcome bad managing. Yet, when the two conspire, they're going to lose more often than not.

I really don't want to pick a Lame Duck for this game. You can't point to one player and blame him, but that's what you do in DC. You've gotta find that scapegoat. Wilkerson had a bad day. Jose Guillen, despite the homerun and the 9DP (figure that one out!), didn't play especially well, getting thrown out on base, again. Vinny Castilla walked three times, but couldn't come up with the big hit. Gary Bennett had a few hits, but had that crushing DP, and passed another ball, which contributed to the winning run in the 13th.

But, the recently-hot Cristian Guzman went a sterling 0-5 He made several nice defensive plays (I'm actually impressed with him), but did manage to throw another ball away. He wasn't necessarily the team's worst player, just one of several. And yeah, this is probably a makeup call from earlier this year!
Road Trip Stats
Record: 4-2
Goal: 4-5

Some losses are more demoralizing than others. Let's see how they rebound against Arizona. Brandon Webb tonight?