Another Game, Another Nats Loss

Washington Has Dropped 9 of Its Past 11 Games: Braves 9, Nationals 8

Brooks Conrad put the Braves ahead with a three-run pinch-hit home run with two outs in the seventh inning.
Brooks Conrad put the Braves ahead with a three-run pinch-hit home run with two outs in the seventh inning. (By Nick Wass -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 4, 2009

On the nights when the Washington Nationals do not invent new ways to lose, they merely perfect the old ways.

Since the dawn of the strike zone, some one-and-a-half centuries of baseball have proved the value of throwing pitches there. Of course, that didn't stop Jesús Colome, appearing in a game with the score tied last night, from reiterating the point about what happens when you don't.

If abiding Nationals followers didn't get a sense of impending doom simply from Colome's emergence through the bullpen doors last night, they got it after watching Colome's initial contribution -- six pitches to start the seventh inning, one leadoff walk. On cue, disaster followed. Colome walked one more, then permitted a go-ahead, two-out, three-run homer to a pinch-hitter, Brooks Conrad, homerless in 19 previous major league at-bats. Washington's resulting 9-8 loss to the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park didn't inspire much inventiveness. But it reminded the 33,982 in attendance of Washington's favorite way to lose, which is the oldest way in the book.

"It is disturbing, because obviously those last nine outs have been very hard to get for us, and when you come in you don't help yourself by walking guys," Manager Manny Acta said. "And those guys [in the bullpen], they're veteran guys. They should come in and throw strikes."

Before Colome's slapdash inning -- later punctuated by a three-walk, one-run eighth inning courtesy of a Ron Villone and Julián Tavárez -- the Nationals had actually staged a few novelties. Their newly acquired center fielder, Nyjer Morgan, parlayed a first-inning walk into a stolen base and a run scored, and patrolled the outfield with a long, natural gait previously unseen in the District. The Nationals, too, offset a rocky Ross Detwiler pitching performance with a steady supply of early offense, which included Adam Dunn's 21st homer of the season.

But nothing helped the Nationals avoid the routine result. Not Acta's pregame meeting, a five-minute exhortation about solving the narrow losses. Not even Atlanta reliever Rafeal Soriano's ninth-inning wildness. Soriano, trying to protect a 9-6 lead, walked the first two batters he faced, ratcheting up the intensity. But then, the potent middle of Washington's lineup -- Dunn and Josh Willingham -- popped out and struck out, in succession. With two outs, Cristian Guzmán doubled home two, but then Josh Bard swung at the first pitch, and grounded to first, and finalized Washington's ninth loss in 11 contests.

"I think everything is frustrating," Dunn said. "I don't know how many times you can sit here and say we're better than what we are."

The first segment of this game owed its pace to inefficacious pitching, and what resulted was a tit-for-tat battle of long at-bats, crowded base paths, and soaring ball totals. Unfortunately, Washington's starter, Detwiler, never found a way to let his competence level rise as high as his pitch count. After mostly commendable results in his previous eight major league starts, Detwiler on this night walked to the mound, started throwing, and realized his control was gone. Entirely gone.

"I couldn't keep the fastball down, and it got hit hard," Detwiler said.

Of the 22 batters he faced, eleven were greeted with first-pitch balls. Twelve reached base. Ten managed hits, and they were hard hits -- liners into the corners, railroad-straight darts to center, razor-sharp doubles over the center fielder's head. And it could have been worse. Twice, Atlanta left the bases loaded. Through three innings, Detwiler had faced 18 batters, walked opposing pitcher Kenshin Kawakami, and thrown 66 pitches. Into the top of the fourth he languished, until Atlanta knocked out three more consecutive hits, and that was the end.

Detwiler avoided the loss, however, because the Nationals' lineup generated runs in four of the first five innings against Kawakami. The Nationals scored in all styles, with Morgan generating a run in the first -- he walked, stole second and scored on a two-out Willingham single -- with Detwiler producing an RBI single in the second, with Dunn drilling a second-deck solo homer in the third.

Acta had tried to put Colome in a safe situation, facing the bottom of Atlanta's order. Nothing could protect Colome from his own mistakes. After walking two, he threw a low and inside fastball to Conrad, who golfed it into the home bullpen, just beyond the right field fence.

After the game, Colome didn't much feel like analyzing the sequence. "Not today," he said before leaving the clubhouse. "I don't feel good."

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