By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010; D01
NEW YORK -- With the Washington Nationals ahead by four runs and victory six outs away, Brian Bruney emerged from the Citi Field bullpen gates Tuesday night. "I felt really good," Bruney said later. "I felt like it was going to be a really good night."
The rest of the Nationals had no reason to expect otherwise. They had averted calamity, even thrived, in the late innings this year. They were headed toward another victory and a new high point in their season, until they weren't.
Just as the Nationals further asserted themselves as potential contenders, their bullpen melted down, turning a sure win into a bitter 8-6 loss to the New York Mets before 31,606. Bruney and Tyler Clippard, at one point the most dominant reliever in baseball, figured in the six-run implosion in the eighth.
The Nationals squandered a game they had full control of throughout. They led by three runs after the first, five after the fifth and four after the seventh. But rather than bolstering their place in the standings, Washington fell back into a second-place tie with the Mets and snapped a three-game winning streak.
"That's a big letdown," Bruney said. "We just didn't duplicate what we did last night, and that's frustrating."
Said Manager Jim Riggleman: "It fell apart."
The Nationals' bullpen had bailed them out and preserved victories all season. They had not lost a game this season while leading by five runs.
"We really hadn't had a lead like that in a while," Clippard said. "It hurts."
Into the game jogged Bruney, carrying an ERA close to six and a season full of stumbles. Bruney had atoned with a clean performance Monday, and Riggleman hoped to give Clippard a second consecutive night off. Bruney, throwing only seven pitches, reverted to his earlier struggles. Jason Bay led off with a single and David Wright followed with a double into the right field corner.
"I can't control the results," Bruney said. "I feel good. I felt like I threw downhill, and that's a step in the right direction for me. Unfortunately, I got beat."
Bruney finally induced a groundball, toward Ian Desmond. "The ball took a funny hop," Desmond said. He bobbled it slightly, then in his attempt to recover, made an errant throw to first, allowing the Mets' first run of the inning to score.
Riggleman yanked Bruney before he had recorded an out. In came Clippard, a pitcher who would surely stabilize the inning, hand the Nationals a cushion in the ninth and allow them to breathe easy. He struck out Jeff Francoeur swinging, just as planned. Maybe he had been shaky lately, but the league leader in wins had it under control.
And then Clippard unraveled, more so than at any other point. He tried to throw a fastball down and away to Rod Barajas, but it leaked back over the plate. Barajas smoked a towering double off the left field wall, just over Josh Willingham's glove. Two runners scored, the Nats led by one.
Riggleman stuck by Clippard. Alex Cora bunted for a single. Up came pinch hitter Chris Carter, called up from Class AAA earlier in the day. When he roped a double into the right field corner, two more Mets, the tying and go-ahead runs, sprinted around the bases.
For the fourth straight outing, Clippard walked off the mound have squandered a Nationals lead. In those outings, Clippard, once automatic, has allowed five inherited runners to score while giving up three of his own runs.
For good measure, Miguel Batista plunked Bay, the 10th batter of the inning, to force in an insurance run. By the time the Nationals skulked into the dugout, the promising beginning of the game seemed like it had happened long, long ago.
Adam Dunn sparked a relative offensive outburst with a three-run home run in the first inning. The Nationals, cruising along, added three runs in the fifth inning on singles by Ian Desmond and Iván Rodríguez. With Scott Olsen scrambling out of trouble, yielding two runs in 5 1/3 innings despite nine hits and two walks, it seemed the Nationals had a sure victory.
Instead, the Nationals suffered their most stunning loss of the season.
The team has followed its toughest losses this year with victories. They won twice after allowing 10 runs before the third inning, and they won after losing in the 14th inning. Wednesday will bring another test to a team once accustomed to such hardship.
"This team has been through so much adversity the last couple years," Desmond said. "These guys that are returning, they've lost, I don't know, 10 in a row, I'm assuming. Twenty in a row. One loss isn't a big deal. We'll bounce back."