- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 30, 2007

PITTSBURGH — Sure, there were reasons for the Washington Nationals to be concerned. Their slumping lineup had struggled again just to produce two runs. Their starting pitcher was off his game, though he managed to get through six innings without surrendering a run.

But as Manny Acta said later: “We had it.

“We were leading,” the manager continued. “We had our bullpen [fresh]. I’ll take my chances every day leading in the seventh inning with our bullpen.”

And then, just like that, they didn’t have it anymore. Leading by two runs in the seventh, the Nationals watched as Saul Rivera gave both runs back, then as Jon Rauch lost it during an excruciating ninth inning. By night’s end, the Pittsburgh Pirates were storming the field in celebration, having rallied to win 3-2 before an ecstatic crowd of 32,361 at PNC Park.

The Nationals‘ fourth straight loss and eighth in 10 games was as demoralizing as any this ballclub has suffered all season. Leading 2-0 thanks to a couple of key hits and a gutsy six innings from Matt Chico, they collapsed after a series of walks, poor pitches and poor execution.

Jose Bautista’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly off Rauch won it in the ninth, but Rivera’s struggles two innings earlier were just as crucial.

Summoned from the bullpen to hold the two-run lead, Rivera immediately fell into trouble. He threw five straight balls to open the seventh, walking Jack Wilson and falling behind pinch-hitter Nate McLouth. The right-hander knew he had just put himself in a dangerous predicament.

“Leadoff walk. That’s when it hurts,” he said. “It hurts, big-time.”

Sure enough, McLouth laced Rivera’s next pitch deep to right-center, past Austin Kearns’ reach and up against the wall for an RBI triple. Moments later, Bautista drove in the tying run with the first of his two sacrifice flies. Just like that, Chico’s six shutout innings and the Nationals‘ tailor-made victory were in serious jeopardy.

“The curse of the leadoff walk,” Acta said. “It will always get you.”

Rauch (3-2) didn’t issue a leadoff walk in the ninth, but he was victimized by a sudden loss of control. Ronny Paulino started the rally with a single to left, then took second on a sacrifice bunt and advanced to third when a low changeup from Rauch skipped between catcher Brian Schneider’s legs.

Rauch was charged with a wild pitch, but Schneider took the blame.

“I’ve got to keep that ball in front of me,” he said. “That’s what it boils down to. Keep that guy off of third.”

With the winning run now 90 feet from scoring (in the form of pinch-runner Jose Castillo) the Nationals chose to intentionally walk McLouth and set up a potential double play. But Rauch hurt himself by issuing another walk, this time to Ryan Doumit, and that loaded the bases for Bautista, who lofted a medium-deep fly ball to left that easily scored Castillo with the game-winner.

“I just had an off-night. It happens,” said Rauch, who pitched a 1-2-3 eighth to extend his scoreless inning streak to 121/3. “Plain and simple, that’s the easiest way to explain it. I had an off-night and didn’t do my job, and just picked a bad [time] to do it.”

Though Washington’s bullpen took the brunt of the blame for the loss, a stagnant offense that once again was rendered ineffective was just as responsible.

The Nationals managed just two runs and five hits off Pirates starter Ian Snell, getting a solo home run from Ryan Langerhans in the third and a sacrifice fly from Felipe Lopez in the seventh.

Thus, their offensive woes continued for another night. Already one of the worst-hitting teams in baseball, they’ve now scored a total of five runs in their last four games. Over their last nine, the Nationals average 2.2 runs.

“It should tell every one of these guys that we need to get it going offensively,” Acta said. “It’s that simple. We’re 2-8 over the last 10 games, and we haven’t been able to score. It’s easier said than done, but we do need to score some more runs.”

Acta tried to coax some more punch from his troops last night with a reconfigured lineup that saw Ronnie Belliard bumped up to the No. 2 spot and struggling Lopez dropped all the way to the seven-hole, but the results were the same.

Other than Dmitri Young, who produced two more hits to raise his average to .339, the Nationals aren’t getting nearly enough offensive production.

And when an inept lineup shows up on the same night the bullpen melts down, the result isn’t pretty.

“This is a character-builder right now,” Young said. “Our luck’s a little down right now, but we just have to leave here, go watch a movie or some TV or whatever, go out, do what you gotta do, and be ready for tomorrow.”