Last night's game in Atlanta wasn't the keystone cops affair I worried about. The injury to Meat resulted in a much-improved defense and arguably an all-around better team. Langerhans replaced Lo Duca in left and gave us a very good defensive outfield of Langerhans, Harris, and Kearns. Casto is solid defensively at third, and Belliard and Guzman are below average but competent. Memo to Manny: that's what I want to see when Balester pitches. Of course, with Estrada catching and Lo Duca at first the potential for a defensive meltdown was still there, but we got through it with nothing worse than one Estrada throw into centerfield on a steal attempt.
Regardless, with Nationals-killer Tim Hudson pitching, no one was very optimistic. With a sinkerballer like Hudson, you have to be patient. Spoil the pitches down in the zone, which will only get pounded into the dirt. Then, when he leaves pitches up, you have to punish him. Especially in the pitcher-friendly Turner Field, he's not going to give up many homers, and he doesn't give up walks. So you have to string together hits, but you can do it if you're patient because he doesn't get Ks like he used to. But if you are overly aggressive, you can make him look like Bob Gibson. Sound familiar?
Tim Redding's start made a tough game worse. In the second, Teixeira hit a lead-off double on a fastball lerft over the plate. He had spoiled a couple nice sliders and got his pitch--a nice at bat by a very good hitter. Redding got both McCann and Kotsay out on good pitches, wrapped around a HBP to Francoeur. Then came Lillibridge's 2-RBI double, a terrible mistake. With two outs, runners on the corners, and an 0-2 count, Redding left a big fat slider right over the plate. You can't let the #8 hitter beat you like that.
Hudson meanwhile cruised through the first two innings, but in the third we finally got to him. Hudson left a sinker way up in the zone to Casto, and he smashed a double to dead center. Then Langerhans hit a pretty good pitch right back through the box to score Casto. Lo Duca followed with an RBI base hit. He was badly jammed on the pitch, and he'll make outs about 90% of the time on swings like that, but the run counts just the same.
I'll say one nice thing about Lo Duca--he stole second, and it was a heady play. Hudson wasn't paying any attention to him, and he got himself in scoring position with our best hitter at the plate. Guzman didn't get him in, but still it was one of the few times I can remember Lo Duca doing something on the field that justifies his reputation as a "winner who does the little things."
But in the bottom of the third, Redding gave it back and more. He walked Gregor Blanco, who stinks, on four straight fastballs, none close. He got Kelly Johnson to fly out on a nice change-up, but then Cox called a perfect hit-and-run that allowed Larry to hit a jam job through the vacant hole where Belliard would have been if he hadn't been covering second. That put runners on first and third, and Redding walked Tex to load the bases. McCann made him pay by golfing a change up down and out of the zone for a bases-clearing double. It was intended I think to be a throw away pitch to set up a fastball, but McCann's a good hitter, and when you give away baserunners that'll happen. Francoeur struck out on a fastball up and away (boy, he better never be a National), and then Kotsay finished off the four-run inning by socking a fastball up in the zone for a base hit.
In short, Redding beat himself. The Nationals need better than that from him. Thankfully, since Bergmann was scheduled to pitch out of the pen to keep him sharp after the long layoff, Manny didn't have to burn his bullpen in the first game out of the break.
By that point, with Hudson on the mound and down 6-2, you would have thought the game was over. But the Nationals were given a chance by Bergmann, who was getting the extra work out of the pen before his next scheduled start because of the break, and Charlie Manning, who after a brutal start to his major league career has given us a very useful 3.93 ERA in his last 22 appearances, thank you very much.
In the sixth, Kearns doubled on an excuse-me swing that happened to result in a double. Then Belliard did what you have to do against Hudson: he took two good sinkers for called strikes that would have been groundouts if he had swung, and then when Hudson missed up with a slider, Belly made him pay with a sharp base hit. Belliard is a pro--if I'm a GM with a playoff team, I'm on the phone with Bowden about getting him for my bench (assuming I'm still on speaking terms with JimBo).
Then, in the seventh, Langerhans smashed a cookie of a change-up for a triple. Flores, in a nice bit of hitting, lifted a change-up for a sac fly to make it 7-4. Willie Harris drew a rare Hudson walk on four straight balls. Then, with Hudson clearly tiring, Lo Duca should have been taking all the way on 3-1 with his team down 3 runs. But of course he was hacking as always, and Manny only saved the GDP-machine from the GDP by sending Harris. Guzman came through by flicking an easy change-up into left field to make it 7-5. With a little patience, we showed that Huddy isn't unhittable after all, but we could have had more.
We plated one in the 9th against palsying closer Mike Gonzalez but fell one short. A winnable game, and you hang the loss squarely on Redding.
One other thing. Chip Carey, who does the play-by-play for the Braves, which is what you get watching the MLB.tv replay, was incredibly patronizing towards our guys. Not that we deserve a ton of respect, but he was pretty damned irritating. Another good reason to hate the Braves and their racist cheer and their nut job owner. I wish Hammerin' Hank could have worn a Milwaukee Braves hat at the All-Star Game. Atlanta doesn't deserve him.