Marlins Rally for Sweep of Nationals

Florida Marlins' Dan Uggla, top, circles the bases after hitting a home run against Washington Nationals pitcher Shawn Hill, bottom, during the sixth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, May 11, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Florida Marlins' Dan Uggla, top, circles the bases after hitting a home run against Washington Nationals pitcher Shawn Hill, bottom, during the sixth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, May 11, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (Pablo Martinez Monsivais - AP)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008

Two tinted-window tour buses idled yesterday afternoon inside a lower-level concrete tunnel, waiting to transport a burdened baseball team from Nationals Park to Union Station. From there, the Washington Nationals would spend the remainder of the day traveling to New York -- the closest this team would come all weekend to forward movement.

Yesterday's 5-4 loss to the Marlins, made possible by relief pitcher Luis Ayala's 18-pitch, two-home run, eighth-inning unraveling, ensured that a demoralized team -- losers in five of six games -- would head to Shea Stadium for its latest road trip.

Before departing, Ayala stood in a quiet clubhouse, an ice block mummy-wrapped atop his right shoulder. He refused to comment about his latest performance, saying, in English, "I don't speak English." At lockers around him, Ryan Zimmerman called the loss "tough." Starter Shawn Hill said it "hurt." Aaron Boone said, "We ought to be a little ticked off, embarrassed."

The three runs Ayala surrendered not only provided the Marlins with a comeback win and a series sweep, but also deprived Washington of a chance to celebrate its own early-inning performance. When Ayala entered the game, the Nationals led 4-2. Hill had thrown 96 pitches over seven innings, walking nobody, mixing a vicious sinker with a fastball that touched the low 90s. Meantime, Boone had capitalized on a rare start, just his seventh of the year, by blasting a second-inning home run and driving in another run with a third-inning triple.

Manager Manny Acta removed Hill after seven even though the Nationals starter had volunteered to remain in the game. No, Acta decided -- not with Hill's spot due to bat in the bottom of the seventh. Not with a pitch count nearing 100. "He was done no matter what," Acta later said.

In turn, Washington handed the ball to Ayala, its setup specialist. He'd starred for the team in 2005, departed in 2006 to rehabilitate a reconstructed elbow, and returned with style in 2007, notching a 3.19 ERA in 44 games. But this year, he's regressed and yesterday's performance bloated his ERA to 5.91. He's allowed at least two runs in four of his last five appearances, dating from May 3.

"We're a little worried," Acta said.

"He's just leaving a lot of pitches in the middle of the plate," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "In the innings that he's pitching, you can't make those kinds of mistakes."

With Ayala on the mound, the game, and all the goodwill built by Hill and Boone, disintegrated in minutes. The first batter, Alfredo Amézaga, drilled such a hard liner to first base that it popped in and out of Boone's glove. Boone scrambled to field the ball, but Ayala came late to cover first -- sluggishness that granted Amézaga a single.

"He froze there," St. Claire said. "He stood there, and when he hopped out, it was too late."

When the next batter, Jeremy Hermida, clubbed a two-run homer to right field, the Nationals had lost their lead. And later that inning, when Florida second baseman Dan Uggla deposited a down-the-middle Ayala fastball beyond the Geico sign in right-center field, the Nationals had also lost a tie.

Ayala finished the inning, but not without leaving behind a scene of dread. Almost on cue, dark clouds, soon to burst, rolled across the horizon. As Washington players trotted back to the dugout to bat, the stadium public address announcer told the crowd that the traditional promotion in which children are allowed to run the bases had been canceled because of bad weather. That gave the 25,871 in attendance just one more reason to boo.

Earlier in the game, the Nationals had missed chances at insurance runs. Felipe López's third base steal attempt in the fifth, for instance, might have helped -- if only he hadn't tried to do so with just one out. And with Ryan Zimmerman batting. In the seventh, Washington also managed to waste Jesús Flores's one-out double; pinch hitter Nick Johnson, batting for Hill, struck out looking. Then, to end the inning, López flied out.

Earlier games this series against the Marlins had hinted at Washington's bullpen problems, though Ayala had figured in none of them. Twice, Nationals relief pitchers entered games with several on base, promptly allowed those inherited runners to score and just as promptly ended any reasonable chance for a Washington win that night.

Jesús Colome, during the sixth inning Friday night, allowed a bases-clearing double to Luis Gonzalez. One night later, during the fourth inning, Joel Hanrahan's wild pitch-walk-grand slam combustion turned a 5-0 deficit into a 10-0 surrender. Respective Nationals starters Tim Redding and Mike O'Connor were charged with a combined seven runs while already in the showers.

But this one, many Nationals said, felt more agonizing.

"Every loss is tough," Acta said. "But this one, it's just a little more discouraging, because you play so well."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company