- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2007

PHILADELPHIA — Had the Washington Nationals lost last nights game because of a simple lack of offense against one of the sports best young pitchers, it wouldnt have been terribly difficult to swallow. They would have congratulated Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels, left the park and prepared to come back today.

Alas, there was far more to the Nationals 7-5, 14-inning loss than that. The eventual result was far more agonizing, featuring a stunning rally in the ninth to take the lead, a bad defensive goof in the bottom of the inning to send the game into extra innings and then the inevitable implosion in the 14th that sealed Washingtons fate.

“They had a lot of chances to win, and we had a lot of chances to win, too,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “Crazy game tonight.” The marathon game ended nearly five hours after it started with only a fraction of the sellout crowd of 44,931 still in attendance at Citizens Bank Park to witness it. It matched the record for longest game in Nationals history, the fifth one to last 14 innings over the last three seasons. It featured 8 1/3 innings of one-run ball by the Washington bullpen, and that run was unearned.

But none of that mattered by nights end because when Ryan Howard launched a two-run homer into the second deck down the right-field line off reliever Chris Booker, this crushing defeat was sealed. Booker, who was optioned to Class AAA Columbus at the end of the evening in a previously planned move to make room for todays starter (John Lannan), entered in the 14th and immediately walked Chase Utley. Howard, the reigning National League MVP, was up next, and he pounced on a 2-2 fastball from Booker and drove it deep to right for the game-winner.

Thus ended a wild ballgame. Stymied most of the night by Hamels, who allowed just two runs over seven innings, the Nationals came storming back to take a 5-4 lead in the ninth, only to blow it in astounding fashion in the bottom of the inning. Pinch-hitters Tony Batista and Jesus Flores were the offensive heroes, each delivering RBI doubles to bring Washington back from two runs down to tie and then take the lead.

Key at-bats,” manager Manny Acta said. “Were looking in that situation for a guy like Batista, who can get an extra-base hit, and he got it. And Flores, we feel comfortable with him against lefties. They delivered for us. Acta used everything he could to push those three runs across in regulation, using his entire bench in an effort to win the game right there. The manager even went so far as to announce Robert Fick as a pinch-hitter with two on and one out, then replace the left-handed hitter with Flores once Phillies manager Charlie Manuel countered with left-hander Mike Zagurski from his bullpen.

The move paid off because Flores came through with the two-run double to right-center that put the Nationals on top. If only they could have stayed there. Acta summoned Chad Cordero to pitch the ninth and earn his 20th save. The Washington closer was well on his way to doing just that, retiring Philadelphias first two batters and starting Jimmy Rollins off with two strikes. Thats when this ballgame went off track thanks to three defensive gaffes on one batted ball.

Rollins lofted a deep drive to the warning track, with left fielder Ryan Church and center fielder Ryan Langerhans each converging on the ball. Neither called the other off, though, and so the ball glanced off Churchs glove and then his thigh before falling to the ground. Mistake No. 1. I looked up for a second and saw him coming,” Langerhans said. “I guess I just braced myself for a collision and didnt extend my arm long enough to catch the ball. [The crowd noise] makes it tough, but thats still no excuse. We should have come up with the play.

Still, Rollins would have been held to a triple if not for what happened next. Church fired the ball back to the infield, but his throw skipped past shortstop Felipe Lopez as Rollins bolted for the plate. Mistake No. 2. “We battled back, scratched back,” a despondent Church said. “We had a chance to go in there and steal a ‘W’. Its my fault. When it comes down to it, I lost the game.” Despite all that, the Nationals had a shot to nail Rollins at the plate. Lopezs throw had the speedy leadoff man beat, but it skipped in the dirt, and Schneider couldnt haul it in and make the tag. Rollins scored the tying run on a play ruled a triple and an error on Church (for the throw). Mistake No. 3.

“About five things wrong on one play, and it ended up costing us, Acta said. “This is the big leagues. A guy is not supposed to score on a fly ball that somebody drops.” By then, the games initial eight innings were a distant memory, not that there werent some interesting developments along the way. Washington rookie starter Matt Chico wasnt at his best, allowing four runs over 4 2/3 innings, but the young left-hander showed some grit in keeping the damage to a minimum and keeping his team in the game.

Things easily could have gotten out of hand on multiple occasions, particularly in the fifth, when Chico allowed a pair of singles and then surrendered a run-scoring double to Aaron Rowand. But he made one of his best pitches of the night to strike out Howard with the count full. And even though he was pulled after issuing his third walk of the night, reliever Chris Schroder bailed his teammate out by getting Helms looking at a 3-2 fastball.

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