Another heartbreaker

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There were any number of excruciating losses on the Nationals’ just-completed, eight-game homestand. This one, though, was just as tough to stomach as any of the ones that came before it.

Washington got a brilliant performance from John Lannan (seven scoreless innings) but wasted it with another late meltdown. With the game still scoreless in the top of the ninth, relievers Garrett Mock and Mike Hinckley combined to issue three straight walks, the last of which forced in the night’s only run.

Three key points to dissect about this one…

SITUATIONAL HITTING: In short, the Nats had none. They went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and did so in ugly fashion. The worst instance came in the seventh, when Josh Willingham led off with a double, then moved to third on Ronnie Belliard’s sacrifice bunt. All Washington needed to do was get a ball into the outfield. But Jesus Flores hit a sharp grounder to third for the second out. And Austin Kearns, coming off the bench to pinch hit, swung at the first pitch he saw and popped out to shortstop.

“Our situational hitting just continues to bury us,” manager Manny Acta said. “You win ballgames scoring runs, and we haven’t been doing that.”

SHAKY DEFENSE: The bullpen meltdown was not pretty, but it was avoidable. With one out and a man on first, Mock made a nifty play on Casey Kotchman’s comebacker. Mock wheeled and threw to second for the force out. Shortstop Alex Cintron had to try to avoid the on-charging Matt Diaz, but he had time to make the throw to first and complete the double play but instead threw wide of first to prolong the inning.

“I thought we should have turned it,” Acta said.

Cintron accepted some blame, but he said it wasn’t an easy play given the way Diaz tried to break it up.

“I tried to hold my ground,” Cintron said. “I probably should have maybe jumped and tried to make the throw. I catch the ball, and he was right on me. He got my throw away.”

ANOTHER BULLPEN IMPLOSION: Even after all that, the Nationals only needed their relievers to throw strikes to get out of the inning. But Mock walked No. 8 hitter Jordan Schafer and exited in favor of Mike Hinckley. Hinckley got ahead of Martin Prado 1-2 but then tried to get too fine with his breaking balls and wound up throwing three straight balls to walk Prado and load the bases. Kelly Johnson then drew another walk on five pitches, forcing in the game’s only run.

“My job is to put hitters away, and I didn’t do my job,” Hinckley said. “If I throw anywhere close, maybe I have a shot. But two short breaking balls, that’s not getting the job done.”

And so at the end of the day, the Nats squandered another golden opportunity. In their last six games, they entered the ninth inning either ahead or tied, yet won only twice. Thus, what could easily have been a 7-1 homestand instead finished at 3-5.

“It was tough, because we had an opportunity to erase the first week of the season by having a great homestand,” Acta said. “It’s over now, but we wasted those three games against the Marlins. We won this series, which is nice, but still we had an opportunity to take the three games and completely erase that first week and get everybody behind us.”

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Mark Zuckerman

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