Correction to This Article
This article about the Washington Nationals' 2-1 loss the previous day to the Colorado Rockies incorrectly said that by giving up a sacrifice-fly run, Nationals relief pitcher Tyler Clippard helped deny starter Scott Olsen a win. Olsen would not have been eligible for the win.

Nationals fall to Rockies, 2-1, for third straight loss

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2010

DENVER -- Until they arrived here, the Washington Nationals thrived in close games and on their resistance to defeat. If they kept the score close, they won. If they lost the day before, they won.

In four games against the Colorado Rockies, and especially during Sunday's 2-1 loss, the Nationals misplaced their ability to shape the final innings as they chose. Tyler Clippard, once unhittable and still tied for the major league lead in wins, allowed an eighth-inning sacrifice fly that helped rob Scott Olsen of a deserved win and sent the Nationals to their first three-game losing streak of the season.

"We've had some heartbreaking losses since we've been in Colorado," Clippard said. "We're still playing good. We got a good outlook on everything. It's been tough the last three games. But that's baseball. It happens."

Before they arrived in Colorado, the Nationals had not lost a nine-inning, one-run game all season. On Sunday, they lost their second in a row at Coors Field before 42,874. The day after the Rockies swept them in a day-night doubleheader, the Nationals could not avoid their first extended losing streak of the season, which is not insignificant. By the end of the day, only the Minnesota Twins had not lost three straight.

"I know how we're going to respond," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "We're going to respond with a good effort. Now, that don't mean you're going to win the ballgame."

On Sunday, again, a suddenly shaky bullpen and stagnant offense doomed them. In the eighth, Clippard led off the inning by walking Seth Smith, the first sign he lacked his typical crispness. Clippard leads the league in relief innings pitched, but he had not appeared since Wednesday. "I think he's had too many days off lately," Riggleman said.

Clippard followed the cardinal-sin walk by leaving a change-up high to Carlos González, who smoked a single to right. Dexter Fowler pinch-hit and laid down a bunt. Iván Rodríguez pounced on the ball and decided his only play was at first, putting two men in scoring position with one out for Brad Hawpe.

It had been in these situations that Clippard, for so much of the season, could seemingly summon a strikeout on demand. He used breaking balls to get two strikes, and then Hawpe fouled back a fastball.

"I set it up perfect," Clippard said. He would throw a change-up low and away, Hawpe would swing and miss, and the game would be saved. Only Clippard again left his change-up high, and Hawpe drove it to left field. Josh Willingham settled underneath, no chance of throwing out Smith at home.

The change-up "has been a savior for him," Riggleman said. "It hasn't been as locked in lately."

The winning run squandered the latest evidence of Olsen's emergence. On Sunday, he allowed one run on five hits in 6 2/3 innings, lowering his ERA to 3.15. Olsen has joined Liván Hernández as perhaps the Nationals' steadiest starter, having allowed four earned runs in his last 32 1/3 innings.

His performance Sunday should have all but sealed a victory. The only run he allowed came in the second inning, when Troy Tulowitzki laced a leadoff double and later scored on a sacrifice fly by Miguel Olivo. But he had exited by the time the game was decided, matched by another young lefty recovering from shoulder surgery.

Jeff Francis, the left-hander who pitched the Rockies to the 2007 World Series at 26, appeared in a major league game for the first time since Sept. 12, 2008. Francis underwent a major operation to repair a torn labrum, and after a minor setback this spring he landed on the 15-day disabled list, unable to pitch until Sunday.

The Nationals commemorated Francis's return by sending him to the ropes early. Nyjer Morgan, the first big league batter Francis had faced in 611 days, reached on an infield single. Ian Desmond followed with a double to left-center field, and Cristian Guzmán drove in Morgan with a sacrifice fly.

Francis escaped the inning without suffering further damage, and the Nationals would not score off Francis again. They had their best chance in the seventh, Francis's final inning. As his pitch count neared 100, Mike Morse and Alberto González led off with groundball singles to left field.

Olsen came to the plate, tasked with a sacrifice bunt. Francis kept throwing inside, tempting Olsen to bunt toward first, where Todd Helton was rushing in. Olsen realized a bunt that way would likely become a double play. Either he was going to bunt to third, or he was going to strike out. After three fouls, Olsen had struck out.

"That was our best chance to score on the day," Olsen said. "If I get that ball down, it's a different game. I was able to do my job on the mound, but not at the plate."

Morgan struck out, and Desmond popped to shallow center. Francis walked off to a thunderous ovation. The noise would be matched later, when the Nationals retreated to their clubhouse, stuck in an unfamiliar rut.

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