- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Throughout their recent five-game winning streak, the Washington Nationals kept counting on late-inning heroics to pull off each victory.

It happened Thursday against the Philadelphia Phillies. It happened twice Saturday and once Sunday against the Arizona Diamondbacks. And it happened again Monday, with the Nationals scoring four runs in the seventh and eighth innings against the St. Louis Cardinals to complement Ramon Ortiz’s near no-hitter.

It’s a dangerous way to play the game, scoring five straight times in your final at-bat. Late-game heroics are nice, but you can’t count on them happening every single day — a lesson Washington learned last night.

Despite a quality pitching performance from veteran Pedro Astacio and opportunities to rally in the eighth and ninth innings, the Nationals could not do so in a 2-0 loss to the Cardinals before 25,937 at RFK Stadium.

“You don’t count on [another late rally], but … if you put yourself in that position, you can dream or wish or whatever,” manager Frank Robinson said. “It’s not that you’re waiting for the eighth or ninth inning, but we did put ourselves in position and gave ourselves a chance to win it. That’s what you ask for.”

The only other thing Robinson could have asked for was a clutch hit once his players put themselves in position to rally. He didn’t get it.

Stifled for seven innings by Cardinals right-hander Jeff Suppan, the Nationals finally threatened in the eighth when Ryan Zimmerman drew a two-out walk and Nick Johnson singled to right. Suppan departed, gassed from a 121-pitch effort, and St. Louis manager Tony La Russa entrusted the lead to reliever Adam Wainwright.

Wainwright created even more of a mess for St. Louis when he grazed Austin Kearns with a 2-0 fastball, bringing Brian Schneider to the plate with the bases loaded and a chance to carry on the home team’s newfound tradition.

“I was looking up at the scoreboard, and you see it’s the eighth inning,” Schneider said. “It’s funny how things are working out like that.”

It didn’t work out this time. Wainwright struck out Schneider on a nasty 1-2 curveball, quashing that rally.

The Nationals gave it one last try in the ninth and nearly pulled it off when Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen walked Ryan Church and Alfonso Soriano with two outs. Felipe Lopez came to the plate as the potential winning run, but he flailed helplessly at a high 2-2 fastball to end the game.

“We feel like in the eighth inning and ninth inning, we have a very good chance to do something,” Soriano said. “But we could not do anything today.”

As a result, Astacio (3-5) wound up the hard-luck loser despite an impressive, 61/3-inning outing that saw him surrender a solo homer to the man Robinson considers the game’s best hitter.

Albert Pujols was the third batter Astacio faced in the top of the first, and the St. Louis slugger launched a 3-2 breaking ball deep to left for his 44th homer of the season.

That tied Pujols with Soriano for second place on the National League leader board. Only Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies (53) has clubbed more homers, though Pujols might make a run at the top spot if he keeps up his current pace.

This latest homer was Pujols’ fifth in nine plate appearances spanning three games, a torrid streak that might cause a few MVP voters to reconsider the reigning award-winner over Howard.

“There’s a way to pitch him, yeah,” Robinson said. “But as we found out twice in the series, if you make a mistake — just like Ryan Howard — if you make a mistake on those guys, they’re going to hurt you.”

Pujols’ tape-measure shot might have foretold a long night for Astacio, but the right-hander sparkled from that point. He retired 16 of the next 18 batters and took the mound in the seventh still trailing only 1-0.

But the good vibes couldn’t last forever, and the Cardinals finally got to Astacio again. Scott Rolen and Preston Wilson led off with back-to-back singles, and Aaron Miles added a one-out single on a swinging bunt down the third-base line. Still, Astacio was on the verge of escaping the jam, getting slow Yadier Molina to ground to short for what should have been a tailor-made double play. Second baseman Bernie Castro, though, dropped Lopez’s feed, everybody was safe and St. Louis had a 2-0 lead.

“You can live with a loss like that,” Robinson said. “It wasn’t something we did. It was something the other team did better than we did tonight. You can live with that.”

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