Nats Try Rising Up, Only to Fall at End

Ivan Rodriguez tags out the Nats' Willie Harris at home plate in the ninth.
Ivan Rodriguez tags out the Nats' Willie Harris at home plate in the ninth. (By Pat Sullivan -- Associated Press)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 11, 2009

HOUSTON, July 10 -- The Washington Nationals tried to stage an uprising on Friday night, and uprisings only work when you begin at a very low place. Okay, so the Nationals had that part down. But they also require a plan for once you get on top, seize the upper hand. That's where the Nationals, to their dismay, realized their shortcoming.

Down, then up, then tied, the Nationals nearly completed a stirring comeback win on Friday but instead fell to the Houston Astros, 6-5, because of several late miscues in moments when flawlessness was required. In the top of the ninth of a tied game, Willie Harris was waved home by third base coach Pat Listach on a blistered Nyjer Morgan single up the middle -- only to be thrown out at home for the second out. Then, in the bottom of the ninth, Joe Beimel allowed a leadoff single, and later, Mike MacDougal intentionally walked a batter, threw a wild pitch, walked another batter, and served up a walk-off hit to Geoff Blum.

When Blum, with two outs, cracked that bases-loaded two-outs liner to right, Minute Maid Park erupted -- all sirens and noise. The Nationals walked off quietly, with one of their toughest losses of the season. Not counting the result from the seven-minute resumption of a suspended game on Thursday, the Nationals still haven't won on this road trip (0-5). This night's effort helped the team distance itself from a wretched three-game stretch that included six errors and prompted MASN analyst Rob Dibble to excoriate the club for its lack of effort, but still, it amounted to consolation.

Uprisings are only worthwhile if they lead to what you wanted.

And the team had plenty to regret. Two runners were thrown out at the plate. A Blum double in the eighth, which helped Houston tie the game at 5, occurred several pitches after Beimel induced him to pop foul toward first. Problem was, first baseman Nick Johnson lost it against the ceiling, and it dropped several feet behind him.

"Obviously it's a play that has to be made," Beimel said. "Anybody with a pair of eyes can see that. But at the same time, I've got to make pitches after that, no excuses. I've got to bounce back from that and be able to get them out, make the pitches I need to, and I didn't do it. It's just -- I don't know. It's at the point where it's beyond embarrassing for us. I think everybody in the clubhouse should be embarrassed the way we play. Just the way we lose games. We find a way all the time that's just -- it's sickening. It's to the point where it's just hard to take. We've just got to get better."

The Nationals had started from way behind. Deep into this game, they were trailing, meek and obedient like a caged animal, dead-quiet as Houston ace Roy Oswalt kept them under control.

Then it happened. A complete reversal. Oswalt, who'd kept the Nationals without a hit in five of his first six innings, left the game with an injury, and Washington sunk its teeth deep into a quality bullpen and started tearing away.

To get a sense for what they overcame with a four-run seventh-inning rally, it helps to know where they started: Entering the top of the seventh, they were down 4-1. Oswalt, Houston's unimposing 6-foot righty, was coming at the Nationals with all the noise of smoke through a door crack; quietly, Washington was just going to sleep. Oswalt retired the first nine batters he faced. After a fourth-inning blemish -- Morgan slapped a single, stole two bases, then scored on Adam Dunn's double -- Oswalt kept cruising.

Meantime, Washington's own starter, Scott Olsen, was struggling to keep it together. Making his third start since returning from the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis, the left-hander was hit hard. Carlos Lee led off the second with a colossal homer to left. Michael Bourn led off the third with by swatting a homer, just his third of the year, into the first row in left. Those who weren't hitting homers were either roping singles or taking walks. At one point, 10 of 14 Astros reached base.

And still, Olsen helped keep his start together with chicken wire and gum. He got two double plays, picked a runner off second, and never allowed the Astros to score more than two in an inning. When he forced Oswalt to dribble to second to end the sixth, Olsen walked away with a half-decent outing.

More important, Oswalt, during that at-bat, injured his hand, which resulted in numbness on two of his fingers. He tried to go out for the seventh, but didn't have the same form. Dunn cranked a ground-rule double to right-center. Josh Willingham followed with an RBI double. Oswalt left the game, ahead 4-2. And that's where Washington's comeback got serious. Four of the next six hitters, including Alberto González, Willie Harris, Morgan and Cristian Guzmán, strung together singles. When Guzmán yanked a Chris Sampson 0-1 breaking ball to center, González and Harris scored, and Washington had a 5-4 lead.

It was a short-lived lead. After Sean Burnett and Jason Bergmann combined to hold Houston scoreless in the bottom of the seventh, Beimel entered for the eighth. The lefty gave up back-to-back hits, including a Blum double, with one out. After an intentional walk, the bases were loaded. And pinch hitter Jeff Keppinger's sacrifice fly to left tied the game at 5.

"We blew another one," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said. "Our bullpen let us down again, our top two guys, but overall I feel good. The guys played very hard, we battled back up until the end."

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