Pujols, Cardinals Defeat Nationals, 3-2

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 29, 2009

ST. LOUIS, Aug. 28 -- The 83rd loss of the Washington Nationals' season didn't look like a loss until the game's final pitch -- a Jason Bergmann slider in a tie game -- was roaring somewhere toward the Missouri-Illinois state line.

Albert Pujols, the game's most dangerous hitter, watched it hiss into the night, nearly clunking the second deck in left field. Busch Stadium whipped into a frenzy. Pujols chucked his bat aside, almost in defiance, and began his 360-foot trot. Washington's players walked off, 3-2 losers against the Cardinals on Friday night. St. Louis's players crowded at home plate, as catcher Yadier Molina held everybody back, opening just enough space for the walk-off home run hitter to walk into a mob.

Pujols, just before touching home, clapped twice and pointed to the sky. This was his 41st home run of the season. No previous home run this season more resembled, with noise or power, a detonation: The Nationals felt the blast, and afterward, they were shaken.

From almost any vantage point -- the broadcast booth, the stands, the television highlights -- Friday's affair at Busch resulted in a captivating baseball, and even the bullpen failures were pure. The game ended because Pujols decided it would end.

But inside the Washington clubhouse, in the minutes after their latest loss, few saw any reason to recognize the game's worthiness. John Lannan didn't care to reflect on his stellar eight-inning start, his first encouraging performance since early August; he couldn't stop thinking about that eighth-inning, game-tying home run he allowed to pinch hitter Khalil Greene. Bergmann, meantime, didn't take comfort in the fact that he'd been roughed up by Pujols. He sat in front of his locker, shaking his head, keeping his sentences fastball-quick, because he still wanted to be out there throwing more of them.

"I threw him a pitch," Bergmann said. "Middle of the plate. It was a bad pitch. He's a good hitter."

Earlier in the season, Washington lost tough games all the time. Its bullpen collapsed, then collapsed the next day, and it all became part of the routine. But the team's recent stabilization has triggered a noteworthy side-effect. Now, the losses sting.

"I mean, man, it's crazy because you feel like you've got them and all of a sudden, boom, something happens," center fielder Willie Harris said. "Earlier in the year when we were losing a lot of ballgames it was almost like, oh, just another loss. But now I think it hurts more to lose as a player on this team. Because we know we can win."

The large portion of this game was a sizzling duel between two opposite pitchers, each seeking his own version of a bounce-back. St. Louis's John Smoltz, signed Aug. 19 after eight dismal, retirement-is-near starts with Boston, wanted to show that he could still win a few more games before preparing that Hall of Fame speech. Lannan, whose ERA had risen from 3.39 to 4.03 in his previous three starts, merely wanted a strong finish to the season.

While Smoltz allowed just one run in six innings, Lannan was on point. Four of the first 12 St. Louis hitters bounced grounders back to the pitcher's mound. Even when St. Louis scored in the second, it was only because a few groundballs bounded through the infield -- and Lannan used a double play to temper a bases-loaded, no out jam. Between the start of the third and the start of the sixth, the Cardinals didn't manage a hit. When the first two Cardinals reached in the seventh, Lannan forced Pujols to fly to right and got Matt Holliday to ground into an inning-ending double play.

Back-to-back doubles by Elijah Dukes and Josh Bard lifted Washington to a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning, but Lannan, in the eighth, gave up the home run to Greene after falling behind 3-1. With the game tied, Riggleman decided against using closer Mike MacDougal in the ninth. He called instead on Bergmann, who threw three pitches to the first, last and only hitter he faced.

"I should have went nine," a disappointed Lannan said. "And that's not good enough. I'm glad I didn't go 1 2/3 innings. I'm glad I didn't give up seven hits. But, yeah, I shouldn't have given the home run [to Greene] up there. If I don't give up that home run, I'm back out there in the ninth -- I think."

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