- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2006

They were the unsung heroes of the Washington Nationals’ inaugural season, the bridge between a reliable starting rotation and a lights-out closer.

The Nationals would not have hung around the wild-card race into late September if not for the positive work of their middle relievers.

A season later, they might have a .500 record if not for the negative work of that same group.

A bullpen that had been among baseball’s best blew its fifth save in seven tries last night as set-up man Gary Majewski gave up a three-run homer to Atlanta’s Wilson Betemit that ensured a 3-1 loss to the Braves at RFK Stadium.

A Sunday night crowd of 21,569 — smallest in the club’s brief history at RFK — watched as Majewski (1-1) spoiled a standout performance from starter Tony Armas Jr.

The loss dropped Washington to 7-11 for the season, but it’s not unreasonable to declare that this team would be 9-9 if not for two games blown by the bullpen in the last week. That unit now owns a 5.11 ERA, a far cry from the 3.55 ERA it posted in 2005 and an admitted problem for manager Frank Robinson.

“Yeah, I have concerns,” he said. “This is a game we should have put away tonight. We have to win those games.”

After Armas pitched 61/3 shutout innings, Robinson entrusted the game’s final eight outs to his bullpen. Mike Stanton and Felix Rodriguez recorded the first two, getting out of a seventh inning jam and handing the baton to Majewski.

The second-year setup man entered with a 2.13 ERA, but the number was a tad misleading. He had already been tagged with two blown saves in his last three games, so when he gave up a leadoff triple to Martin Prado (the rookie’s first career hit), it was not shocking. A flyout and a walk put runners on the corners with one out for Betemit, and Majewski proceeded to pound him with fastballs.

With a 1-2 count, Majewski went to the well one too many times. He reached 94 mph on the radar gun, but he left the pitch up in the strike zone and Betemit drilled it to deep right-center. The ball landed under the giant clock beyond the fence, and the Nationals’ 1-0 lead morphed into a 3-1 deficit.

“It was a major mistake,” Majewski said. “I threw one too many fastballs, but that’s my strength. I’ve got to stick with it.”

Robinson didn’t totally agree with that line of thinking.

“He’s out there just throwing. He’s not pitching,” the manager said. “He thinks harder is better. It’s not.”

It was Majewski’s second home run surrendered in 132/3 innings this season, equaling the number of longballs he gave up in 86 innings a year ago.

“You can’t harp on the situation,” he said. “He hit a good pitch, we lost the game. … Tomorrow’s a new day.”

Washington did mount one last-ditch comeback attempt in the ninth, getting singles from Damian Jackson and Jose Vidro (the latter a line shot off the wall in right that Vidro briefly thought might leave the park). But with runners on the corners and two outs, Atlanta veteran left-hander Mike Remlinger got Nick Johnson to ground out harmlessly to first, ending the game and leaving the Nationals with 11 runners stranded for the night.

“We got plenty of chances there,” Vidro said. “But we didn’t get that big hit to win the game.”

The Nationals’ one and only ESPN Sunday night game didn’t exactly captivate the fan base. The 8:05 p.m. start time, coupled with a weekend full of rain, led to a significantly smaller crowd than the previous RFK low of 23,966 on April 18, 2005 against the Florida Marlins.

Those in attendance and those watching on television did get to see an impressive performance from Washington … at least, for seven innings.

The Nationals jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first, with Johnson doubling just inside the first-base line to start a two-out rally and Jose Guillen following with an RBI double of his own that the cleanup hitter clearly believed would clear the fence in deep right-center.

For most of the night, that one run looked like it would hold up, because Armas was brilliant. He allowed three hits in 61/3, and escaped from a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the fifth to help keep the Braves off the scoreboard.

Though he wound up with no-decision, Armas was encouraged by his outing.

“It’s still early in the season,” he said. “I just want to keep it going.”

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