As children, our mothers told us “cheaters never prosper.”
Tampa Bay Rays’ pitcher Joel Perralta learned the wisdom of those words the hard way in the sixth inning tonight when he surrendered a two-out, two-run double to Washington Nationals’ second baseman Danny Espinosa that gave the Nats a 4-2 lead. Perralta ended up the losing pitcher as the Nationals won the game and the series from the Rays, 5-2.
Washington starter Gio Gonzalez (9-3) earned the win as he pitched in and out of jams for six innings, limiting the Rays, who went 3-13 with runners in scoring position, to just two runs despite giving up seven hits and two walks. Five Nationals relievers, including three to survive the seventh inning, got the final nine outs, with Tyler Clippard pitching another perfect ninth against the top of the Rays’ order for his 11th save. To add to the good news for the Nationals, both the Phillies and Marlins lost and, with the Braves and Mets idle, Washington gained ground on all four division rivals.
The game turned in the sixth inning. The Rays, trailing 2-1, tied the game on a Sean Rodriguez single that scored Ben Zobrist from second. In a move that later proved crucial, Rays manager Joe Maddon removed his starting pitcher, Matt Moore, for a pinch hitter. Moore struck out six in his five innings of work, but walked four and threw 93 pitchers.
Maddon decided Moore was finished for the evening, but his pinch hitter, Elliot Johnson, struck out to end the inning. Maddon decided to replace Moore with Nats’ fans newest arch villain, Joel Perralta.
Earlier in the day, Major League Baseball suspended Perralta for eight games for having a glove filled with pine tar. Of course, it was the Nationals, to Maddon’s great chagrin, who outed Perralta, probably from his time with the club in 2010. Perralta, however, appealed the decision and will remain eligible to pitch for the Rays until MLB hears his side of the story.
Charged with keeping the game tied, Perralta retired the first two batters, but Nats’ catcher Jesus Flores kept the inning alive with a double off the left field wall. Washington manager Davey Johnson replaced Gonzalez with his own pinch hitter, Adam LaRoche. Maddon had Perralta intentionally walk LaRoche to instead pitch to Espinosa.
A brainy manager much beloved by aficianados of baseball statistics, the move made sense, as the switch hitting Espinosa entered the game hitting .189 while batting left-handed. Playing the percentages failed when Espinosa lined a 1-1 pitch into the right field corner, scoring both runners and saddling Perralta with the loss, much to the delight of the 29,551 in attendance.
Johnson turned the game over to his bullpen. In the seventh, the trio of Craig Stammen, Mike Gonzalez, and Ryan Mattheus nearly surrendered the lead. Stammen walked two and retired two batters on pop outs. Gonzalez then walked Hideki Matsui to load the bases. Mattheus faced Rodriguez and fell behind in the count, 3-1, but rebounded to strike out the Rays’ infielder on a 92 MPH fastball that moved like a slider.
The Nationals added a run on a Roger Bernadina single. Burnett and Clippard, for the second game in a row, retired the Rays in order in the 8th and 9th to secure the Nats’ 40th win of the season. By comparison, Washington’s record at this point last season was 31-36. The win also gave the club a 8-4 record in their recent 12 game trek through the treacherous American League East. Three games in Baltimore this weekend are all that remain in Washington’s difficult interleague schedule.
Champ of the Game: Espinosa, who overcame his troubles against right-hand pitching with a clutch hit that has seemed to elude the Nationals this entire homestand.
Chump of the Game: Who else but the confirmed and suspended cheater Perralta? His being the losing pitcher is a deliciously enjoyable bit of irony for Nationals fans as it likely also is for Davey Johnson and his club. Say what you will of Johnson, but his team responded to the war of words between their manager and Maddon with two victories against one of baseball’s best teams, even without injured superstar Evan Longoria.
For the Nationals, no one deserves the chump mantle, except, perhaps Gonzalez for issuing the two-out walk to Matsui that loaded the bases and put the great storyline of Perralta losing in jeopardy.
Next Game: Friday, June 22, 7:05 p.m. at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Washington begins its final interleague series of 2012 against the surprising Baltimore Orioles, who sit in second place in the AL East with a fine 39-30 mark. Jordan Zimmermann (3-5, 2.92 ERA) faces Jason Hammel (7-2, 2.87 ERA). Hammel will be making his first start since his 1-hit gem in Atlanta this past Sunday.