Two hours before the first pitch, hitting coach Mitchell Page is holding court on the Nationals bench. He turns to Nick Johnson. Whaddya know about tonight’s pitcher, Nick?
Johnson gives him an aw-shucks grin. He’s 2-for-5 lifetime against Florida starter Anibal Sanchez. I’ve got time before the first pitch, he says. You tell me about him, coach.
Page runs through the scouting report. Sanchez works backward, using his curveball early in the count and his fastball late. Be patient, he says. Wait for something over the plate.
First pitch comes, and Sanchezis wild. He walks the first three hitters, bringing up Johnson. Manager Frank Robinson shouldn’t be worried, especially with his cleanup hitter at the plate. But he is. He’s instructed players to "lock in" and "have a plan" before at bats, yet his hitters just haven’t produced in these situations.
Twelve of Sanchez’s 14 pitches have been balls, so Johnson should be patient. Sanchez throws the first pitch high and inside. Johnson hacks it foul. Sanchez runs a ball in on the hands, and Johnson pops it up to second base. Austin Kearns then looks at two pitches before grounding into an inning-ending double play.
Three men are left on. No runs score.
It’s a tableau that’s played out too many times for the Nationals (50-64). Thursday night, they stranded 11 runners and lost, 9-6.
They had their chances before 21,304 at RFK Stadium. In the seventh, with the bases loaded and no outs, Johnson came to the plate. He let a fastball up-and-away go for a strike once, but when he saw the pitch again, Johnson hit it into center field for a two-run single. Brian Schneider and Daryle Ward drove in three more runs to tie the game at 6-6.
But in the eighth, Ryan Wagner let the tie slip away when Wes Helms hit the go-ahead RBI double.