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Shaky bullpen blows it for Nats

- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 13, 2006

While right-hander Jason Bergmann is still in the experimental stages as a big league starter, the Washington bullpen is a proven area of weakness for the Nationals.

For the second time in three games, the Nationals relievers wasted an admirable rally. Chris Schroder entered a tie game in the seventh inning last night, and by the time he left, the New York Mets reclaimed the lead for good in a 6-4 victory. A crowd of 42,507, the fourth-largest at RFK Stadium this season, watched the Mets score three runs off relievers Schroder and Travis Hughes.

"When you're pitching at this level, you've got to get people out," Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. "Those kids [in the bullpen] are going to be inconsistent. It's going to be their Achilles' heel and their inexperience."

The Mets bullpen pitched 32/3 scoreless innings to thwart any comeback hopes. Mets closer Billy Wagner pitched a scoreless ninth for his 27th save of the season.

Schroder (0-1) took the loss by allowing two runs in the seventh. A run-scoring single by Jose Valentin and a sacrifice fly by Michael Tucker, who was in the Nationals spring training camp, proved to be the difference.

Desperate for bullpen help, the Nationals purchased Schroder's contract from Class AAA New Orleans on Thursday, and he made his major league debut later that night by tossing a scoreless seventh inning. He wasn't as effective last night. In one inning of work, Schroder allowed the two runs on two hits.

"Obviously, this is a little different," Schroder said of pitching in the big leagues. "I wasn't nervous. There's no excuses."

The Nationals (51-65) recalled Bergmann on Friday from Class AAA New Orleans. Bergmann was brought up to fill the hole in the rotation created by last week's Livan Hernandez trade to the Arizona Diamondbacks and with rookie Mike O'Connor on the 15-day disabled list.

Bergmann's first 2 seasons as a pro were as a starting pitcher. He switched to the bullpen in mid-June of 2004. The Nationals converted Bergmann back to a starter at New Orleans on July 21. In four starts with the Zephyrs, Bergmann went 3-1 with a 3.63 ERA in 221/3 innings.

"He has four pitches, we'll see," general manager Jim Bowden said. "Tim Foli, our Triple-A manager, feels that he will be a better starter than a reliever because he's able to utilize all four pitches. I don't know if he will or won't be. We have conflicting opinions, so here's his opportunity."

The National League East leaders provided a good barometer for the 24-year-old Bergmann. The Mets (70-45) have perhaps the most potent lineup in the NL.

Bergmann, drafted out of Rutgers in the 11th round in 2002, ran into trouble in the third inning, allowing three runs. He hit Mets starting pitcher John Maine to open the inning. Then, Mets leadoff man Jose Reyes tripled to the alley in right-center field to easily score Maine.

Paul Lo Duca then drove in Reyes with a hard single to left. Then it was Carlos Beltran's turn. The All-Star center fielder tripled to the same gap that Reyes had, and the Mets led 3-0.

"The first couple innings it was more fastball/slider and a couple changeups, a lot of lefties in this lineup," Bergmann said of his second career start. "Then after that, the fourth inning, the curveball started working great. Maybe next time, I'll start using that curveball a little earlier."

In four career appearances out of the bullpen against the Mets, Bergmann had worked 31/3 scoreless innings. Last season, Bergmann picked up a win against the Mets on Sept. 15 at Shea Stadium when he pitched a scoreless ninth. Former Nationals third baseman Vinny Castilla delivered a two-out RBI single in the 10th inning.

Hughes opened the sixth for Bergmann and promptly surrendered a double to David Wright, just past the outstretched glove of diving center fielder Alex Escobar. Wright later scored on an infield chopper by Lastings Milledge that gave the Mets a 4-1 lead. Hughes loaded the bases after Wright scored by issuing two walks.

"I've got to get the ball down a little bit and quit trying to overthrow sometimes," Hughes said. "Sometimes I let the game get a little too carried away. I need to be able to slow the game down and not let myself speed up."

A high pitch count cut Bergmann's evening short last night. Bergmann exited the game in the fifth inning after throwing 91 pitches -- 60 for strikes. He allowed three runs on four hits. Bergmann walked two, struck out four and hit Maine.

Meanwhile, Maine was good early. The North Stafford (Va.) High School graduate struck out four of the first 10 batters he faced, but he was victimized by the long ball the second time through the Nationals batting order.

Nick Johnson belted a solo shot to the upper deck in right field with two outs in the fourth inning to cut the Mets lead to 3-1. Johnson's 18th homer of the season snapped Maine's consecutive scoreless innings streak at 26 -- all but one of those as a starter.

Alfonso Soriano also hit a home run off Maine -- hitting a two-run shot to left-center field in the sixth to bring the Nationals within 4-3. It was Soriano's 37th homer of the season.

The Nationals continued their rally in the sixth and tied the game 4-4 on Johnson's RBI single to center field. Johnson went 2-for-4 with a home run and two RBI.

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