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Nationals Fall to Dodgers, 10-3

Mike Hinckley has a look of frustration after walking the Dodgers' Orlando Hudson with the bases full in the sixth.
Mike Hinckley has a look of frustration after walking the Dodgers' Orlando Hudson with the bases full in the sixth. (By Lori Shepler -- Associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009; 2:59 AM

LOS ANGELES, May 6 -- At least twice this year, the Washington Nationals have become so dissatisfied with their bullpen that they've ripped it apart, promising more changes if results don't follow. On April 19, three relief pitchers were demoted, with three more called in. About a week later, the closer lost his job, replaced by a committee. And so far, all those changes have led to exactly zero progress. A putrid April begat the beginnings of a putrid May. And a putrid May begets questions about what changes Washington should make next, and whether they have any prayer of helping.

The bullpen wasn't solely responsible for the dysfunction in Wednesday night's 10-3 loss to Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium. But scan the inning-by-inning run totals in the box score and one number stands out: "7." The Dodgers hung seven runs against a trio of pitchers -- including the first two relievers of the night -- in the bottom of the sixth. Seven proved to be the difference in this game. Seven also signaled the latest warning bell that the Nationals, especially at the front end of their bullpen, have serious liabilities.

Asked after the loss if his team would again shake up its bullpen, Manager Manny Acta said, "We're talking about it. We're taking a look at the guys in Class AAA, and [acting general manager] Mike [Rizzo] is exploring possibilities. And we're going to continue to work until, you know, it's better. Because we deserve better, and right now, it's not giving us a chance."

Washington's starter, Daniel Cabrera, took the loss on a night when the Dodgers won their big league-record 13th consecutive home game to start a season. And Cabrera, to be sure, deserved partial blame. He walked five, including the final two batters he faced in the sixth. Still, when he exited, having already escaped several jams, the Nationals trailed 2-1. The bases were loaded, but at that moment, Cabrera had a 3.94 ERA, best on the staff.

The first two relief pitchers of the night, Mike Hinckley and Logan Kensing, dynamited Washington's chances to keep it close. Evidence of the wreckage, some 30 minutes after the game, was everywhere. You could see it in Cabrera's ERA, which rose to 4.85 by the time all those inherited runs scored. You could see it merely by finding Hinckley in the visiting clubhouse, as the left-hander offered a detailed soliloquy of the two batters he faced, and the one pitch that made him feel queasy.

Hinckley, from the beginning, had a two-batter job. Acta brought him in to face, in order, Rafael Furcal and Orlando Hudson. Both are switch hitters. Given the situation -- bases loaded, one out -- Hinckley needed to curb his greatest problem this year: Walks. This year, he's walked more than a batter per inning.

"He's been a bit erratic with his control," Acta said.

Hinckley avoided such an issue with Furcal, but found another problem. Furcal splashed a run-scoring single to left.

Then came Hudson, who worked the count to 3-2. The final pitch of the at bat was perhaps the most outlandish lowlight of the Nationals' season. Hinckley's pitch traveled about 150 feet, not 60 -- too high for the Statue of Liberty, let alone catcher Jesús Flores -- and smacked the net behind home plate on a fly. As another Los Angeles run walked in, Acta walked to the mound and terminated Hinckley's night.

"I went to throw a fastball on 3-2 and as I went to go back I felt the ball come out of my hand," Hinckley said. "And then I just threw it -- I mean, I had no grip on it. And it's just one of those feelings when you are going down really fast in an elevator and you feel your stomach go out from underneath you, it's like that feeling. I kind of had no idea where this ball is gonna go, because, to be quite honest with you, I just lost it. It wasn't a curveball. It was a 3-2 fastball. And I just lost it."

Though Hinckley was gone, he'd left his can of kerosene on the mound, and Kensing used it liberally. Manny Ramirez doubled to right, scoring two. Then Andre Ethier was intentionally walked. Then James Loney pounded another single, driving in Los Angeles's sixth and seventh runs of the inning.

"We just have to be able to get through it and fight through it," Kensing said. "We've got to find some way to get out of it."

By the time the inning was finally over, Washington's one-run deficit had devolved into a blowout. The Nationals trailed, 9-1. Washington's lineup, quiet for much of the night against laboring but effective Los Angeles starter Clayton Kershaw, had no chance for a rally. Again, the bullpen was the topic of discussion. In two consecutive games now, the Nationals' relievers have allowed five earned runs. The team's bullpen ERA stands at 5.60.

"It's a struggling bullpen right now," Acta said. "That's what it is."

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