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Washington Nationals lose late to Florida Marlins as Brian Bruney struggles

By Adam Kilgore
Saturday, May 8, 2010; D01

The search for a reliable link between the Washington Nationals' starting pitching and the back of their bullpen paused again Friday night on Brian Bruney. And again, in the Nationals' 4-2 loss to the Florida Marlins, Bruney showed why the search persists.

Through 30 games, the Nationals have shown they possess several pieces of a team worthy of contention. At the moment, while first-round draft choice Drew Storen is part of a Class AAA bullpen, the dearth of a consistent option on days Tyler Clippard can't pitch has become the Nationals' most glaring personnel issue.

The Nationals managed only two runs against the Marlins, a team that has bedeviled them for the past three years, so the loss cannot be laid entirely at Bruney's feet. But he entered the game in the seventh inning after starter Craig Stammen held the Marlins to two runs. When Bruney left in the middle of the eighth, the Nationals trailed by two, on their way to dropping to 1-3 against Florida this season, 10-29 since the start of the 2008 season.

"I let a bunch of guys down," Bruney said. "And that's not a good feeling."

Bruney is a relentless worker and operates with an intense demeanor. He cares very much and he tries hard. But, "we're dealing in results," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "I'm looking for results."

Bruney has been the Nationals' first choice as the bridge between the starter and the back end. He has the pitches to perform the task but, so far, not the command. He has walked 18 batters in 15 innings. Friday night, the Nationals dropped to 5-10 in games he pitches.

Bruney entered with two outs in the seventh, the score tied and a man on third. He walked the first batter he faced, then struck out Brett Carroll to end the inning. Bruney pumped his fist. It would be his last good moment of the night.

Bruney started the eighth by surrendering a single Bryan Petersen, the first hit of Petersen's career. Chris Coghlan laid down a sacrifice bunt, which Bruney attempted to field. He couldn't pick up the ball, and once he finally gathered it he didn't have time to throw to first. Gaby Sanchez followed by poking a single to right field, and in came the go-ahead run.

"I'm frustrated with the way I pitched, obviously," Bruney said. "But I felt like I threw the ball okay. I feel good every time I'm out there. Confidence is high. The balls they hit, they're not at people. I feel like I gave up a billion singles."

Bruney would surrender a sacrifice fly and two more walks, one intentional, before Riggleman pulled him. Bruney walked off the field, head down, to scattered boos. His ERA had risen to 6.00, his WHIP to 2.33.

Clippard has become a major factor in the Nationals' encouraging start, often pitching parts of the seventh innings and also the eighth. He boasts a 0.42 ERA. But he is second in the majors among relievers in innings pitched. "You can't have Clip every day," pitching coach Steve McCatty said.

If not Bruney, Sean Burnett, the only left-hander in the bullpen, or Tyler Walker may have the next chance. The most intriguing possibility is not currently on the Nationals roster. Storen, the 10th overall pick in last year's draft, has allowed two earned runs in 13 minor league innings this season. Stephen Strasburg attracted attention for his Class AAA debut Friday night, but another Syracuse Chief could provide more immediate help.

"I think we're a little ways away from that," Riggleman said of promoting Storen. "I'd like for somebody to pitch well enough here that we don't even have to make that move. If there's a reason we brought him up, fine. But I don't want it to be because we're struggling here."

Ryan Zimmerman gave the Nationals a 2-1 lead in the sixth when he likely made Chris Volstad believe pitching just isn't fair. Volstad threw him a darting sinker, on the outside corner, right at the knees. Zimmerman golfed the ball toward over the high portion of the right-center field fence.

Few right-handed batters could combine the power and batting artistry necessary to hit that pitch over that part of the wall. The blast provided evidence for the scout who earlier in the day labeled Zimmerman one of the 10 best players in baseball.

Given a lead, Stammen climbed the mound in the seventh in the midst of one a stretch in which he retired 13 straight batters, striking out seven of them. His previous career high for strikeouts in a full game was five.

Stammen was on a roll, until he wasn't. He hung a 1-2 curveball to Jorge Cantu, a pitch Stammen chose because he had struck out Cantu swinging at one earlier. Even as Cantu swung, Stammen pounded his thighs with his fists. He knew. Cantu unloaded and crunched a home run over the left-center field wall. Stammen didn't survive the inning after a triple by Cody Ross.

Bruney escaped that jam. He could not get himself out of his own, which raises the question of how many more chances he'll have.

"Obviously, I have some work to do," Bruney said. "Tomorrow is a new day. Obviously, tonight didn't go my way. I feel pretty badly about that."

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