It was a lot worse than it looked. The Washington Nationals lost their second in a row at home to the resurgent Colorado Rockies Wednesday night, but the game was not as close as the 5-4 score wouldÂ indicate. That the Nats were even in the game in the 8th inning has to be accounted as a kind of miracle, particularly afterÂ Nats’ pitchers gave up a total of ten walks in the game — four of them to Colorado first baseman Todd Helton. The evening began when Nats starter Collin Balester walked the first three Colorado batters — Carlos Gonzalez, Derek Fowler and Helton — before giving up a double to Rockies’ shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Balester then walked Brad Hawpe, before getting out of the inning: Ian Stewart and Clint Barmes flew out and Balester struck out Chris Ianetta.
Balester’s ineffectiveness led to his early departure (1.1 innings pitched, five walks, three hits and three earned runs), but the Colorado walk-a-thon continued. While Saul Rivera proved effective against a stacked Colorado line-up (he gave up one run in 3.2 innings of work), he walked two before being relieved by lefty RonÂ Villone (who also walked two).Â Jorge Sosa entered the game and promptly walked the first batter he faced — third baseman Ian Stewart.Â Â The Nats, meanwhile, were mounting a comeback, thanks to Colorado’s inability to drive stranded runners to the plate (they left an astounding 12 men on base for the game). The Nat’s fifth inning was key in the comeback, when the team was improbably sparked by a two out rally that featured a triple, single, double, and Adam Dunn infield single. But Washington couldn’t match the Colorado attack, nor reattach the wheels that had fallen off Balester. While the Nats mounted another attack in the seventh, the rally was cut short whenÂ Adam Dunn couldn’t replicate the clutch infield single that had brought runners home in the fifth.Â
After the game, interim manager Jim Riggleman praised the bullpen and the team. “I said it before, but I love working with this group. They get after it,”Â he said. “They are playing hard. They are playing clean baseball. They are fun to manage. They want to win that ballgame. They enjoy playing this competition which will be playoff bound.” Riggleman has it right: if this had been May or June, the Rockies would have piled on and the Nats would have faded. It’s a different team now, and the evidence is obvious on the field. Even so,Â Riggleman and McCatty have to be concerned with the walks issued on Wednesday, especially to regulars who are known as free-swingers.
Like Todd Helton, with all ofÂ 58 base-on-balls all year.Â If the Rockies have a franchise player, it isÂ Helton, a genuine superstar who is probably headed to the hall of fame. But at 35, Helton’s best years are behind him: his power numbers have fallen (he has only 11 homers this year) and last year he was hobbled by injuries — the first chink in his otherwiseÂ impregnable armor. But the Nats pitched him like he was Babe Ruth, serving up 19 balls against eight strikes and walking him in the first, second, fourth and eighth innings.
Helton provides an interesting story. The Knoxville, Tennessee high school baseball and football star was offered $450,000 by the San Diego Padres toÂ pass up college and start a professional career, but Helton turned them down. He was a good enough football player to play for the Tennessee Vols and was slated to take over the starting QB slot for them when their regularÂ starting quarterback got injured during his junior year. But Helton was also hobbled (by a gimpy knee), so he gave way to a bright young freshmanÂ who, Helton remembers,Â everyone knew was the team’s quarterback of the future — Peyton Manning.Â Helton was drafted eighth overall by the Rockies inÂ 1995 and arrived in the majors in 1997. In 1998 he was a regular. In 2000, his best year, he led the league in hits, doubles, RBIsÂ and batting average. He flirted for a time withÂ the triple crown — he hitÂ 42 home runs.