There are plenty of ways to lose a ballgame — and the Nats used most of them on Thursday. Leading 4-2 against Frisco starter Barry Zito going into the seventh inning (and with the game seemingly in hand), the Nationals committed a costly error, the bullpen failed to close out the game, and Washington’s bats (which had undergone a revival of sorts on Wednesday), failed to rally. The result was a 5-4 loss to the Giants in a classic “if only” game that would have given the Nats a solid on-the-road series win. The bottom of the seventh started with what should have been an out, but a ground ball from Giants’ left fielder John Bowker skipped past first baseman Adam Dunn into the outfield. A passed ball followed. The Nats were still in the game and headed for a win when the usually reliable Sean Burnett gave up a single to Nate Schierholtz, whose single to center scored Bowker. Andres Torres singled to right and Freddy Sanchez — hitting against Tyler Walker — followed with another single. That was all the Giants would need.
Facing The Friars: The Padres are baseball’s surprise team — they lead the NL West by two, are nine games over .500 and have one of the best young pitching rotations in the majors. But let’s get real: the Friars don’t have an outfield, are backing and filling on defense (Chase Headley is scooping up the impossible at third, but that won’t last), and no one excepting Adrian Gonzalez has the power of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham or Ivan Rodriguez. Credit the Padres magnificent start, then, to the pitching of groundball specialist Jon Garland, the always-around-the- strike-zone youngster Matt Latos and Pale Hose trade bait Clayton Richard. And, to be honest, the Little Monks have been helped immeasurably by an early schedule that featured massacres against Arizona, Milwaukee and Seattle.
This should not detract from what San Diego has accomplished. The Friars took three from San Francisco in mid-April, then four of five in May. The McCovey’s were embarrassed, as well they might be. Seven of eight wins against Frisco and dominant series against the three stooges (the Showboats, Brewers and Navigators) have been more than enough to compensate for what San Diego lacks: a line-up that (with two lone exceptions) does something besides stand at the plate and pretend to hit. Too harsh? The Padres rank 25th of 30 in BA, 25th in home runs, 25th in hits, and 22nd in RBIs. As for their pitching — well, they rank 1st in ERA, 1st in shutouts, and have given up fewer runs than any other team in baseball. They rank fifth in strike outs. What is even more impressive is that the San Diego rotation does not have a pitcher equal to the NL elite of Jimenez, Halliday, Wainwright, Lincecum, Carpenter, Haren or Hamels — relying for wins on free agent afterthought Jon Garland (6-2, 2.10 ERA), newcomer lefty Clayton Richard (4-2, 2.73 ERA), talk-of-the-town speedballer Mat Latos (4-3, 3.09 ERA) and Frisco retread Kevin Correia (4-4, 4.03 ERA). Oh, and Heath Bell — who has an eye-popping 1.29 ERA to go with his 13 saves.
So here’s the question: are the Padres for real? The answer, as given by a Padres fan, is probably “no.” Writing in The Hardball Times, Friars’ partisan Geoff Young opines that the Friars “have gotten where they are by pitching way over their heads.” Which is to say — this isn’t going to last. Not only have the Padres yet to face the league’s stiffest competition, it’s hard to imagine that Garland & Company will match up well against a staff that features Halliday and Hamels, or Carpenter and Wainwright. That . . . and the Padres flat out just can’t hit. Of course the San Diego front office could dangle Adrian Gonzalez for a top-of-the-line bat, except for one thing — Gonzalez is a top-of-the-line bat. All of this is said while tempting the fates: for the Nats are headed into the dog bowl tonight to test the thesis that, sooner or later, the Pads will fold. But until they do, there’s this: if you can’t get to San Diego’s starters you’re not going to win. Because if you go into the 9th behind, you’ll be facing Heath Bell — the best closer in the game.