The Washington Times - May 22, 2013, 03:51AM

SAN FRANCISCO — It all happened in an instant.  

The moment the Washington Nationals 23rd loss of the season went from a tight, pulse-pounding victory to a gut-wrenching 4-2 defeat came quickly. Pablo Sandoval’s monstrous 10th-inning home run off Yunesky Maya brought with it the pain of an infuriatingly inconsistent season and a surprising .500 record after 46 games for the pre-season World Series favorites.

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There was plenty of blame to go around. 

“I feel bad for everybody,” said manager Davey Johnson.

But the way it got to that point, the way Sandoval was put in a position to do what he did in the 10th inning, brought with it a different — and perhaps far more concerning —  issue. 

The potential final out in what would’ve been an important, uplifting victory for the Nationals lofted into the air off the bat of Gregor Blanco just as the clock struck 10 p.m. local time. As it sailed into right field, Bryce Harper ranged back and to his right. What happened next was somewhat shocking to see: Harper flinched.

Eight days removed from a vicious collision with the right field wall at Dodger Stadium, Harper appeared to recoil before his feet touched the warning track. Scenes of crashing into the wall played through his mind. The ball flew over his head and clanked off the brick wall behind him. Blanco cruised into third base with an RBI-triple.

The Nationals’ 2-1 victory, a game undeservedly ripped from Stephen Strasburg’s win column, was gone.

“I should’ve caught it,” Harper said. “I put that whole loss on me. That really sucks. I make that play any day of the week… It’s five feet from the wall and it’s really a play you should make any time of the day.” 

As he stood in front of his locker almost an hour later, Harper admitted it freely: he was afraid.

 “Absolutely,” Harper said, asked if his collision from L.A. entered his mind. “I don’t want to hit the frickin’ wall full on. Of course it crosses your mind. Jam into a wall and it doesn’t really feel very good. 

“It sucks that I couldn’t make the play. I totally put the loss on me. I’ve really got to catch that ball.”

In truth the Nationals lost for other reasons, too — starting with the fact that they mustered just two hits after a two-run, three-hit first inning off Giants ace Matt Cain. 

They added to a disturbing early-season trend in which their offense, which is having a hard time scoring at all, tapers off almost entirely in later innings. The Nationals have scored just 28 total runs in the seventh inning or later this season. 

And so, for nearly nine full innings, their pitching staff and their defense played on a tightrope. With no margin for error, they fell off. Again. 

“It’s very frustrating,” Johnson said. “We didn’t get the hits when we need to. We had the table set and the right guys up there, we just didn’t get it done. We didn’t hold them… We were in position to win it. And we didn’t win it. It’s tough.”

Their closer, once a man who appeared impervious to any opponent, blew his second save in as many tries, giving up multiple hard-hit balls in a ninth inning in which he faced six batters. 

Rafael Soriano allowed a leadoff single when he couldn’t get a handle on Buster Posey’s hot shot toward him, and then, three batters later there was Blanco’s triple, on a slider.

“One pitch,” Soriano said. “I lost the game there.”

“I knew I hit it hard and they’re playing no-doubles, playing deep,” Blanco, a former Nationals farmhand, told CSN Bay Area. “But this is a tough park to read the ball. I know. I’ve played right field. Harper did a great job to try to catch it.”

The Nationals’ 20-year-old, who has been banged up since he hit the right field wall at Tuner Field three weeks ago and has just six hits since, did not see it that way.  

Asked directly if he felt getting over the mental hurdle put in place by his collision last week was something he’d have to do now, Harper was blunt.

“I better figure it out soon,” he said. “Or I’m going to be in Triple-A. That’s how I feel.”

As the Nationals dispersed late Tuesday night, some wanting to make their exit exceptionally quick and others choosing to sit around and stew a while longer, they were forced to ponder a disturbing thought: how much worse can things get?

Even on a night in which Strasburg settled in after 31-pitch first inning, managed to still go seven and allow just one earned run, they came away with nothing but another day bittered by their outcome.  

Now they’re trying to avoid a sweep and salvage a possible 4-6 road trip. 

“It’s a tough one for us,” Strasburg said. “One out away.

“But it’s over with. We’ve just got to get ready to get it tomorrow and get back to D.C. with a win.” 

Before Tuesday’s game, Johnson kept his hopes modest. He wrote out his lineup, including second baseman Danny Espinosa, in part because he felt it’d give him the best defensive team behind Stasburg. Hopefully the pitcher could bat three times so he wouldn’t need to dip into a now-smaller bench too much. If his hitters won’t produce, he seemed to be saying, fine.

“We’ll go old school,” Johnson said. “Pitch good and defend good.”

The Nationals’ position players dropped down three sacrifice bunts on Tuesday, two from Harper himself and another from Espinosa. But only once did the runner who was moved into scoring position actually come around to score.  

For the third time in their last four games, the Nationals were held to five hits or less.

As they walked off the field quietly and quickly while the Giants mobbed Sandoval and celebrated their heart-stopping victory, the Nationals had all those reasons to digest to figure out why they lose. And one defensive play that would stick with their youngest member.

“It’s just something I’ve got to get over,” Harper said. ” Really have to bear down and get better out there. (I have to) learn everyday.”