Nats nearly no-hit, sloppy in loss
Smoltz pitches seven hitless frames; Hanrahan, defense falter
ATLANTA -- The offense has been the Nationals' Achilles' heel all season. On Friday night, the Nationals showed how bad it could be. Right-hander John Smoltz came close to throwing a no-hitter against Washington in a 7-1 defeat at Turner Field.
The Nationals didn't stand a chance against Smoltz, who pitched seven-plus innings. In the first seven innings, only Dmitri Young, Brian Schneider and Austin Kearns were able to reach base. Young and Schneider reached base on walks, while Kearns reached on an error by Braves shortstop Yunel Escobar. Only Schneider reached second base.
Smoltz didn't give up his first hit until the eighth inning, when Ronnie Belliard led off with a single to right field on a 1-2 slider from Smoltz. Smoltz was then taken out of the game in favor of right-hander Peter Moylan.
"It had a chance to be a magical night. There wasn't a ton of [tough] plays out there. It felt like it. Unfortunately, I just ran out of gas," Smoltz said.
Belliard almost collected the first hit of the game in the fifth inning. He hit a line drive down the left-field line that just went foul. Belliard ended up flying out to center fielder Andruw Jones in that inning. However, Belliard didn't miss his pitch in the eighth.
"He just hung a pitch, and a guy like that, you don't expect [him to do that]," Belliard said. "It doesn't feel special [that I broke up the no-hitter]. We lost the game. We went out there to try to win a ballgame. He is one of the best. He threw an unbelievable game."
According to Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, Smoltz was a different pitcher than the one they've grown accustomed to over the years. Smoltz was pitching more on the inside part of the plate.
"He was really good," said Zimmerman, who struck four times in the game. "He has five or six pitches that he throws for strikes. It seems like he has been pitching in a little bit more. It used to be -- not just with him, but with their whole staff -- away, away, away. Now he throws in and you have to look at the inside part of the plate, too. He throws that slider that starts in the outer half and it disappears. It's tough when he has that going."
The Nationals didn't score their lone run until Smoltz left the game with none out in the eighth. With Moylan on the mound, pinch-hitter Ryan Church doubled to left-center field to score Belliard.
On the other side, it was one of the worst-played games in Nationals history. They committed five errors, three of them by Zimmerman. Three of the errors were committed in the fourth inning.
With runners on first and second and no outs, Smoltz bunted the ball towards Nationals starter Joel Hanrahan, who threw the ball to Zimmerman for the force play. Zimmerman had a chance to get Smoltz for the double play, but Zimmerman's throw went over Young's head for a two base-error. It was Zimmerman's second error of the inning.
"It's embarrassing," Zimmerman said. "You don't want to make one error. But three errors are really embarrassing. It's part of the game. Everyone has made more than one error in a game. It doesn't change my [thought process]. I wasn't trying to baby the ball. I just made a bad throw. It doesn't change anything that I'm going to do tomorrow and anything I do before the game."
Things went from bad to worse. With runners on second and third and Willie Harris at the plate, Hanrahan uncorked a wild pitch. Schneider tried to prevent Escobar from scoring, but Schneider ended up hitting Escobar with the throw. The ball then bounced near the Braves' dugout as Smoltz was able to score on the play and make it a 5-0 game. Schneider was charged with an error on the play.
As is his custom, Acta did not show his emotions when asked about the sloppy play on the field.
"It's baseball," Acta said. "We just won five games in a row. The very next day, we show up like we are in the middle of a five-game losing streak. It happens. I'm sure everyone of those guys wants to do their best.
The starting pitching for the Nationals was a disappointment as well. Hanrahan had a tough time throwing strikes. He lasted just 3 1/3 innings and gave up five runs -- four earned -- on four hits. He walked four batters and struck out three. The biggest blow came in the third inning, when Hanrahan walked the first two hitters -- Harris and Kelly Johnson -- he faced and then gave up a three-run homer to Chipper Jones.
"This is not the team [where you want to] walk guys, especially the first two hitters of the lineup, and then to face Chipper Jones," Acta said. "Hanrahan really struggled with his command."
At least John Smoltz showed better control on the mound for the Braves.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.