For Nats, a Painful Ordeal

Cincinnati Reds pitcher Edinson Volquez walks back to the mound after walking in Washington Nationals' Ronnie Belliard in the third inning of a baseball game, Sunday, July 6, 2008 in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/David Kohl)
Cincinnati Reds pitcher Edinson Volquez walks back to the mound after walking in Washington Nationals' Ronnie Belliard in the third inning of a baseball game, Sunday, July 6, 2008 in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/David Kohl) (David Kohl - AP)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 7, 2008

CINCINNATI, July 6 -- The Washington Nationals' lineup -- a stress to compose, a delight to oppose -- took form early Sunday when Manager Manny Acta looked at his roster, at least the parts that remained of it, and dug for productivity. His team had lost three No. 3 hitters in the last one-and-a-half months. He was left with replacements of replacements, ad infinitum.

"It was kind of tough to put it together," Acta said. "It was tough."

Because of the daunting odds, Sunday's 6-5 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park led to an odd twist of emotions. Against two of the league's top pitchers -- Cincinnati starter Edinson Vólquez and closer Francisco Cordero -- the Nationals battled. They scored their most runs in five games. They harnessed opportunities for multi-run innings.

Yet effort, in the hands of such an undermanned team, is insufficient by itself. For that reason, Washington's loss -- its sixth on this seven-game road trip -- felt more like a reminder of the talent it's missing than whatever fight it still has. Just more than a week after losing center fielder Lastings Milledge, and just a day after losing left fielder Elijah Dukes, the responsibility for the Nationals' ninth-inning comeback fell on the shoulders of a pinch hitter, Wil Nieves, who was stepping into a lineup spot already vacated by both Dmitri Young and Aaron Boone, who each left with injuries.

Young, who started at first base, left in the eighth after complaining of back pain. Boone, who then pinch-ran for Young in the eighth, strained his left calf. Both are day-to-day.

"Please, no questions on how much I can take," Acta told the media with a head-shaking smile before answering postgame questions. "I've already told you I can take it."

Though his team had entered the ninth trailing 6-3, its rally against Cordero -- a right-hander with 18 saves and a 2.43 ERA -- lit the final minutes with intensity, then disappointment.

With two outs, four consecutive Nationals reached base: Felipe López singled; Ronnie Belliard reached after his roller to first scooted away from first baseman Joey Votto; Cristian Guzmán and Austin Kearns followed with singles. But then, with runners on first and second and Washington trailing by one run, Acta used Nieves, a backup catcher, to pinch-hit.

With two strikes, the Cincinnati crowd roared, anticipating a four-game sweep.

The count ran full, and Nieves watched the final pitch.

"We should have won the ballgame," Acta said. "We caught Vólquez on one of his bad days. We should have scored at least eight runs off of him. The fight is there. I know that the fight is there, because back-to-back days you come back against one of the top closers in the league. But the execution and the results are not there."

Looking for those results, Acta decided to form his lineup Sunday around the one player who's neither fallen to injury nor into a slump. Acta decided that Guzmán, the team's all-star representative, would bat third.

"He's not an ideal third hitter, but he is our best hitter," Acta said.

Washington presented Vólquez, perhaps the league's most dominant pitcher this season, with a starting nine responsible for 23 total home runs -- or one less than Cincinnati slugger Adam Dunn. The bottom five spots in the order had a combined 25 RBI.

When the team managed three runs in the third against Vólquez, aided by the pitcher's control problems, Washington turned to its own starter, Collin Balester, for support. Through three innings, Balester, making his second big league start, was perfect. Then in the fourth, he lost -- in sequence -- his perfect game, his no-hitter and his shutout. With two outs, he walked Ken Griffey Jr. Then he surrendered a Brandon Phillips line-drive single to left. The next batter, Dunn, brutalized a 2-2 fastball, sending it beyond the visitor's bullpen in right field.

Perhaps the most promising news of the game was that Balester stayed on the mound to last even that long. When attempting a bunt in the third, a Vólquez pitch rose high and inside, pounding Balester on the fleshy side of his right hand. Upon contact, he fell to the ground, writhing in pain.

"It was like a sting, then a little numb," said Balester, who went 5 2/3 innings and allowed five runs.

"I thought the kid probably had a broken hand," Acta said. "It was a sense of relief for me. . . . Actually, that was the best thing to happen today."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company