Nationals' Bullpen Collapses in Colorado

The walk to the mound is a tedious affair in the eighth inning for Nationals Manager Manny Acta, center, catcher Jesús Flores and reliever Luis Ayala.
The walk to the mound is a tedious affair in the eighth inning for Nationals Manager Manny Acta, center, catcher Jesús Flores and reliever Luis Ayala. (By David Zalubowski -- Associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 7, 2008

DENVER Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

-- Somewhere in there, buried under the rubble, you could still find a game that once resembled a gem. But it was covered beyond recognition, hidden by all the chaos Washington's bullpen permitted in the eighth inning Tuesday night, one of the most unsightly fits of baseball the team has played all year.

In the Nationals' 8-2 loss to Colorado at Coors Field, one dreadful inning mangled the many good ones that preceded it. In the span of 34 pitches from three relief pitchers, a crisp, tied game devolved into mayhem, a kind so extreme that Manager Manny Acta called it "something I don't think I've seen in baseball." The Rockies scored six runs. At one point, six batters in a row reached base. Washington's relief pitchers shook with inadequacy, pitching so wildly -- walking four and hitting two with pitches -- that Colorado could have won without swinging.

"Everybody was off," Acta later said. "Righties couldn't get righties. Lefties couldn't get lefties. We just couldn't throw strikes today. . . . You know, our bullpen has been very good the second half of the season so far, and we just had an off night."

The three pitchers who appeared in the eighth -- Luis Ayala, Charlie Manning and Saúl Rivera -- faced a total of 12 batters. Nine reached base. Their one inning reversed much of Washington's momentum, generated both earlier this week and earlier this game.

The shot at a five-game winning streak, a feat the team hasn't accomplished since September 2007? Gone. That early-game dominance from John Lannan, who took a shutout into the seventh? Negated. All that talk about Washington's resurgent bullpen, which entered Tuesday with baseball's top ERA since the all-star break? Demolished by one night and a resulting ERA of 54.00.

"Everything I could do, I was doing it bad," said Manning, who summarized the game far better than he pitched in it.

In recent weeks, the Nationals' bullpen had grown into an asset, even as its most heralded arm disappeared. Without Jon Rauch, traded 13 games earlier, the Nationals had a 1.72 ERA. Here, the bullpen was handed a tie game. Washington's offense, for the second consecutive night, capitalized on Colorado's wildness: a throwing error helped the Nationals score in the second, a wild pitch brought home Ryan Langerhans in the fifth.

And initially, that opportunism looked to be just enough for sharp starter Lannan, who mixed fast and slow, inside and away -- always in perfect tandem. In the fourth, he started Matt Holliday with four inside pitches, two of them high and tight; then he switched spots, dropping a curveball low and away. Holliday responded with something that more resembled a spin than a swing. Not until the fifth inning did Colorado advance a runner to second. Only in the seventh, when Lannan was one out away from finishing his night with a shutout, did Colorado respond with a single, then an Ian Stewart pinch-hit homer.

Like that, as Stewart's blast sailed toward the right field seats, the game twisted into a 2-2 knot.

Then came the eighth.

Ayala started by facing four, allowing three to reach. Manning, the team's left-handed specialist, faced four more; three reached. Rivera faced four more; three reached. The rubble of one inning kept rising, as the pile fed on a Holliday bloop double that brushed the chalk down the right field line, on an Ayala walk of Garrett Atkins, on an Ayala hit batsman.

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