Ryan Howard Hits 2 Homers as Philadelphia Phillies Beat Washington Nationals, 9-6

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 2009

PHILADELPHIA, May 30 -- Because they kept the score close on Saturday night, and because they executed a rough majority of the defensive plays that big leaguers should execute, and because their combustible and adventurous style again helped the entertainment quotient, the Washington Nationals shouldn't be entirely upbraided for their latest loss, a 9-6 decision against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

Things, indeed, could be worse. In this 48-game fiasco, they have yet to bounce into a triple play. They have yet to lose a game exclusively because of a balk. They haven't yet permitted an opponent to enjoy a nine-RBI game -- though it should be noted that Ryan Howard, batting in the sixth inning on Saturday, already with five RBI, was one grand-slam swing away.

The Nationals, if they want, can console themselves with another night of oh-so-close baseball. They've lost 14 of 16 and five in a row, defeats coming as sure as the calendar turns, but 10 of the team's past 11 games have been decided by three runs or fewer. Those narrow defeats, though, can sometimes deflect attention from the big-picture problems -- the sort that are repeating ad nauseum, and preventing the team from recognizing the things it needs.

Against the Phillies, Adam Dunn committed two more errors in right field. Second baseman Anderson Hernández botched an easy grounder with two outs in the sixth, leading directly to Philadelphia's eighth and ninth runs. Again, a Nationals starting pitcher was hit hard. For the eighth game in a row, the team used at least three relievers. Saturday night, the Nationals used six.

"It's very discouraging," Dunn said. "You expect a lot out of yourself and the team. To be playing the way we're playing and have the record that we have, and so on and so on and so on, it's very frustrating. I can't put it into words -- I mean, frustrating, disappointing, I don't know if there's a word the English language has for it yet."

Howard was responsible for the bulk of Washington's woes. Give the Philadelphia first baseman access to a big-budget movie set, some Hollywood special effects technology and a pitcher on his personal payroll, and he couldn't look more dominant. Though his first home run of the night -- a 426-foot rocket launch to the second deck in the second inning -- was a light-the-sky spectacle by itself, it also piqued anticipation for what came next. By the time Howard appeared at the plate one inning later, Washington had a 3-2 lead, protecting its version of the Dodo bird. The bases were loaded, one out, and pitcher Shairon Martis looked defenseless. He'd already walked two in the inning, among other peccadilloes, and here came Howard, who had homered in consecutive at-bats against the righty, counting his April 27 fifth-inning grand slam in the same ballpark.

The PA announcer growled Howard's name, and 45,121 rose -- a magnificent stage, where Howard followed in the only appropriate way. The second pitch was a high curveball, 77 mph, and Howard vaporized it. A whole ballpark tried to follow this trail of white, soaring up, landing -- are you kidding? -- in the first row of the third deck in right field. Some fan just beyond a Powerade sign in Section 304 had the ball, Howard had a grand slam, Philadelphia had a 6-3 lead, and Washington had trouble.

"I kept the ball high in the zone where he likes it," said Martis, who allowed seven earned runs in his four innings.

When Howard has five RBI and two homers by the third inning, when your own starter can't last past four innings, when your offense is facing World Series MVP Cole Hamels -- well, a blowout is surely in the works. But steadily, the Nationals undercut that logic. They built on their three-run second inning by adding one more in the fourth, courtesy of an Austin Kearns walk and an Alberto González triple. (Though it should be noted, three Washington hitters then struck out with González on third.) Then in the sixth, with Hamels still laboring, Ronnie Belliard rose from the bench and offered the first recent reminder that he can hit big league pitching, pulling a two-out two-run homer to left and bringing the Nationals within a run, 7-6.

But Washington was unable to flip a narrow deficit into a lead.

"Yeah, we know we're losing a lot," Manager Manny Acta said. "It's tough, it's not easy on any of us. But what are we gonna do? There is no option. We're not going to quit."

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