- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2005

CINCINNATI — They had chance after chance and squandered nearly every one of them. So by the time their 4-3, 14-inning loss to the Cincinnati Reds last night was complete, the Washington Nationals were a downtrodden bunch, having suffered through four hours and 20 minutes of prolonged agony.

The Reds finally pulled the plug on the Nationals in the 14th, when pitcher Randy Keisler singled through a drawn-in infield, scoring Jason LaRue from third and drawing a resounding cheer from the few remaining of the crowd of 36,539 that began the evening at Great American Ball Park.

LaRue started the rally with a single to left off Washington’s Luis Ayala (2-3), who was in his third inning of relief. Luis Lopez dropped a double just in front of right fielder Jose Guillen’s outstretched arm to put runners on second and third with one out. Keisler, forced to hit because Reds manager Dave Miley was out of bench players, then drilled a sharp grounder past shortstop Jamey Carroll for his first career hit and RBI. The left-hander also earned his first win of the season with two scoreless innings of relief.

The Nationals, losers of four of their last five games, were left to ponder their countless missed opportunities. Washington stranded a season-high 17 men on base and was an abysmal 3-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

“We just squandered too many opportunities,” manager Frank Robinson said. “We can’t get the big hit. You’ve got to take advantage of your opportunities, and we had plenty of them tonight.”

The Nationals’ offensive woes denied Livan Hernandez a shot at his seventh win in as many starts, though he avoided his first loss since April 19 thanks to a ninth-inning rally. Washington trailed 3-2 going in, but Nick Johnson singled off Kent Mercker to open the inning, then moved to third on a pair of groundouts. David Weathers then walked Marlon Byrd, bringing pinch-hitter Carlos Baerga to the plate.

Baerga, hitting for struggling shortstop Cristian Guzman, tagged Weathers’ 1-0 pitch just inside the first-base line, bringing Johnson home with the tying run and sending the game into extra innings.

That created a world of managerial dilemmas for Robinson, who was forced to make several unconventional moves. The Nationals ended the game with Jamey Carroll at shortstop, Brendan Harris at second base and Gary Bennett catching.

They also were forced to use relief pitcher Gary Majewski as a pinch-hitter to lead off the 10th inning. Tony Blanco was the only remaining position player on Robinson’s bench, and he wanted to save him for an RBI situation. Majewski (0-for-5 as a hitter in his career) subsequently struck out on three pitches, then took the mound in the bottom of the inning.

Robinson also had to ask Ayala to give him three innings in relief, a rare long outing for Washington’s top setup man.

“This was an unusual situation,” Robinson said. “You have to be able to suck it up.”

By the time this one ended, the first inning felt like a lifetime ago. But for a team that has seemingly trailed early in every game it has played this season, the sight of the number “1” on the big scoreboard in left field minutes into the game had to be refreshing.

Excuse them if they didn’t know how to react when Carroll came around to score on Vinny Castilla’s first-inning double. Washington hadn’t scored a first-inning run in 15 games, and it hadn’t scored in any of the first three innings in eight games.

The Nationals may have put an end to that dubious streak, but they didn’t do much else despite several opportunities against Reds left-hander Brandon Claussen.

Washington stranded five men in the game’s first three innings, both of which ended with Ryan Church striking out. When Church’s spot came up again in the fifth with the bases loaded and one out, Robinson decided not to tempt fate any longer. The manager sent up the right-handed Byrd to pinch-hit for the left-handed Church.

On paper, the move was the correct one: Church is 2-for-13 against left-handed pitchers this season, while Byrd is 6-for-12. And in reality, Robinson’s bold move paid off: Byrd sent a fly ball to right field, deep enough to score Johnson with Washington’s second run of the evening.

Still, the Nationals’ early missed opportunities left them in a tough spot later on as they had to come from behind for the umpteenth time this season.

“It’s very frustrating. We had the opportunities and could get the big hits,” Carroll said. “We battled back, tied the game and couldn’t get any more after that.”

Fortunately for Washington, Hernandez was able to shake off a rough first inning — he walked two batters and hit another before surrendering a three-run double to Austin Kearns — and keep the Reds off the scoreboard from there on out.

Riding a six-start winning streak into last night’s game, Hernandez was all over the place. He needed 30 pitches to make it through that troublesome first inning, then put himself in a couple more jams in the third and fifth. Each time, though, he managed to pitch his way out of trouble, striking out Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn in the third and getting Dunn to ground out in the fifth.

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