For Nats, Victory Just Out Of Reach

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

HOUSTON, May 6 -- Austin Kearns charged in from right field, and the ramifications of what happened next were clear. Catch Carlos Lee's sinking line drive, and Kearns's Washington Nationals would preserve a one-run lead into the ninth inning against the Houston Astros. Fail to snare it, and the game would be tied. Let it sneak by, and the Astros would be handed back the lead.

"I thought I could catch it," Kearns said.

The ball sank. Kearns dove. Not only did it fall to the Minute Maid Park turf, but it trickled past his glove. Kearns popped up, but the tying run scored easily, and lumbering Lance Berkman scooted all the way home from first with the run that gave the Astros a 6-5 victory over the Nationals on Tuesday night.

"I think he had to take a shot," Manager Manny Acta said. "You're on the road. You're trying to play to win. . . . It shouldn't have gotten to that point."

Right there is the salient point, because as much as Lee's double won the game for Houston, the Nationals could point to a litany of other problems that caused just their second loss in their last eight. They wasted their first three-homer night of the year, getting solo shots from Nick Johnson, pinch hitter Aaron Boone and Kearns himself. They were victimized by Berkman, the Astros' first baseman, who went 5 for 5, scoring four times, stealing two bases. Four times, they gave back one-run leads to the Astros -- including once on a balk.

"It's definitely a game that I think everybody feels like we should have won," Kearns said. "It's a tough one."

Toss out, for a moment, all the misplays from the early innings, including right-hander Shawn Hill's fourth start of the year. It was, for the most part, forgettable, 5 1/3 innings in which he needed 107 pitches, gave up eight hits and three runs.

"I [stunk]," Hill said. "Period."

The fear in an outing like this for Hill -- who doesn't have a decision in his four starts and was coming off an eight-inning, one-run outing last week against Atlanta -- is that the lack of control with all of his pitches is a result of his persistent, lingering forearm pain. Indeed, the tightness was there from the start Tuesday night, though Hill wouldn't blame his performance on it.

"It was aching today, but nothing that was stopping from throwing," Hill said. "Velocity was still fine."

The results might have been fine, too, had Houston's Hunter Pence not blooped a two-out single into right field in the fifth, scoring the run that tied the game 3-3. But by the end of the night, that was the least of the Nationals' worries.

Start with the seventh. Boone gave the Nationals a 4-3 lead with the first regular season pinch-hit homer of his career, a towering shot to left that landed on the railroad tracks above the Crawford Boxes, which sit just 315 feet from home. With Saúl Rivera on in relief, Berkman -- who enjoyed the first five-hit game of his career and is now hitting .353 -- drove a ball to center. Lastings Milledge first turned to his left, then twirled to his right. All that twisting led only to a ball over his head, Berkman's second double.

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