Signs of Life Short-lived

Philadelphia outfielder Pat Burrell watches as fans -- most of them in Phillies attire -- clamor for the home run ball hit by Jesús Flores during the first inning at Nationals Park.
Philadelphia outfielder Pat Burrell watches as fans -- most of them in Phillies attire -- clamor for the home run ball hit by Jesús Flores during the first inning at Nationals Park. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fireworks exploded. Music boomed through the speakers. Jumbo TV monitors in the outfield screamed: "HOME RUN." Could it be? The Washington Nationals finally had something to celebrate.

After a dearth of offensive production -- the Nationals had scored three runs in their past five games -- signs of life emerged last night. Washington blasted two home runs in the first inning to take a one-run lead. The feat also lifted the mood at Nationals Park and gave an announced crowd of 31,798 reason to wonder whether this night might be different.

That giddiness didn't last, though, and the Nationals lost their eighth straight, dropping an 8-5 decision to the Philadelphia Phillies, who used a five-run fifth inning to put the game out of striking distance. For the Nationals, "out of striking distance" doesn't need to be very far.

Washington (38-69) ranks last in the majors in batting average (.240), total hits (856) and total runs (389). The team's futility had reached almost laughable depths.

The Nationals' sagging productivity cost them time and again, as they spoiled solid performances from their starters in recent outings. Collin Balester received an undeserved loss Tuesday night, when the Nationals couldn't brace his quality start with anything positive. Before Balester, it was Jason Bergmann and John Lannan and others, all repeating chapters in the same story.

"Today we scored some runs, and then the pitching wasn't there," Manager Manny Acta said. "Yesterday, you had the pitching [without] the hitting."

The Nationals couldn't blame the offense last night, even if it amounted to only a flicker. With one of the most powerful lineups in the National League, the Phillies (58-49) rocked starter Tim Redding in the fifth inning and hammered ahead. Two massive swings produced four runs and gave Philadelphia a lead it would not relinquish.

"I walked a 45-year-old pitcher; that's completely inexcusable," Redding said. "And you all saw what happened after that: base hit, base hit, home run, end of the ballgame for me."

Carlos Ruiz, the eighth hitter, led off the fifth inning with a single. Then 45-year-old pitcher Jamie Moyer walked to reach base.

"In that inning," Acta said, "[Redding] basically dug his own grave by not getting the eighth hitter and then walking the pitcher."

After Jimmy Rollins drove in Ruiz, center fielder Shane Victorino (3 for 5, three RBI) sent a screaming two-run single into center field. Utley then unleashed on the 1-0 curveball that Redding left hanging over the plate for his 27th home run of the season, a two-run shot to left-center field.

It was the last pitch for Redding, who had wasted Washington's small but significant run support. He threw 73 pitches over four innings, allowing seven runs on 10 hits.

"Bottom line is, I just didn't do my job," said Redding (7-6). "I didn't execute the pitches I needed to execute -- in the fifth inning, especially -- and we lose 8-5. Without those five runs, we might win the game."

The outlook opened bleakly for the Nationals when Philadelphia took a 2-0 lead in the first. That is precisely the reason what happened in the bottom half of the inning was so improbable.

Leadoff batter Willie Harris (3 for 5) turned on the first pitch, an 83-mph, belt-high fastball, driving it high and over the right field fence. The unlikely event preceded an even more perplexing turn.

With two outs, right fielder Austin Kearns lofted a double to left field. Next up, catcher Jesús Flores (2 for 4) stared at two pitches: ball in the dirt, ball off the plate. On a 2-0 pitch, Flores smashed a diving change-up over the left field fence for his seventh home run of the season. More fireworks, more music, more cheers.

"They're staying positive," Acta said, "and they feel they could score some runs."

The Nationals scored two more runs in the seventh but that was it in a result that was all too familiar.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company