- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

Manny Acta couldn’t have scripted the scenario any more to his liking. His Washington Nationals held a four-run lead in the seventh, and his bullpen was rested and lined up the way he wanted. Everything would go according to plan.

Or so he thought.

Plagued by one of their worst bullpen meltdowns of the season, the Nationals handed victory back to the Philadelphia Phillies. Luis Ayala couldn’t retire either batter he faced. Arnie Munoz served up a three-run homer and a game-tying fielder’s choice. And Jonathan Albaladejo allowed the game-winner to score on a walk and an RBI double in the eighth, the final blow in Washington’s 7-6 loss to the Phillies at RFK Stadium.

“It was just the way we drew it,” Acta said. “It just didn’t work.”

No, it certainly didn’t. Instead of dealing the Phillies’ playoff hopes a serious blow, the Nationals (combined with the Mets’ 10th-inning loss to the Florida Marlins that ended moments later) gave Philadelphia new life.

With nine games to play, the Phillies now trail New York by 1½ games in a down-to-the-wire NL East race.

“We’re here now. How, I don’t know,” said shortstop Jimmy Rollins, whose team trailed the Mets by seven games just more than a week ago. “But it’s sweet now, and that’s all that matters.”

The Nationals built a seemingly comfortable 6-2 lead only two innings in on the strength of RBI doubles by Ryan Zimmerman, Brian Schneider, Ronnie Belliard and Ryan Church. That early outburst off Phillies starter Kyle Lohse, combined with a solid performance by Washington starter Jason Bergmann, put the home team in seemingly good shape.

But the Nationals’ bullpen crumbled in the seventh, turning the lead into a 6-6 tie.

Ayala opened the inning by allowing a single and issuing a walk, then was quickly yanked by Acta. With the left-handed hitting Pete LaForest announced as pinch-hitter, Acta gave the ball to Munoz, figuring the lefty-lefty matchup would play in his favor.

But Phillies manager Charlie Manuel countered by pulling LaForest back and instead sending up the right-handed hitting Jayson Werth. Munoz had no choice but to pitch to him, and on his 3-1 offering, Werth crushed the ball into the upper deck for a three-run homer.

“I really could care less about the pinch-hitter,” Acta said. “The kid was coming in anyways.”

The meltdown continued. Munoz gave up a double to Rollins, and after a sacrifice bunt he got Chase Utley to hit a sharp grounder toward second. Belliard tried to make a nearly impossible throw to the plate to nail Rollins and failed.

Suddenly, the game was tied, and the sizeable Phillies contingent among the 19,966 in attendance was cheering in unison.

One inning later, Albaladejo (1-1) walked Carlos Ruiz with one out. Two batters after that, Rollins doubled to right, bringing the eventual winning run home.

“That’s why it is so important when you play [the Phillies] that you get the eighth hitter and the bottom of the order,” Acta said. “Because it’s a tremendous lineup and you don’t want to be putting guys on when you know that Rollins and [Shane] Victorino and then Utley and [Ryan] Howard are coming up.”

The way the night began, Bergmann looked like he might be headed for a quick exit. On consecutive pitches in the first, the right-hander allowed a triple to Utley and a towering two-run homer to Howard (the reigning NL MVP’s 41st of the season).

But Bergmann immediately righted himself and proceeded to turn in his 10th quality start of the year, second in the Nationals’ rotation only to Shawn Hill’s 11.

At 5-5 with a 4.30 ERA in 19 starts, Bergmann has made his case for the future. After a brief hiccup midway through the season, he returned from a hamstring strain and was in position to win his fourth straight start last night until the bullpen blew it.

Still, Bergmann appears to be one of Washington’s few sure things heading into 2008.

“I think he’s done a good job,” Acta said. “I think Bergy, you know, pretty much has to be counted for next season.”

Bergmann, who will pitch in the Dominican Republic after the season to make up for the innings he lost to injuries, knows he can’t assume anything yet about his future status.

“There’s always something more to prove,” he said. “We’ve got a young team and a young pitching staff, and everyone’s going to be coming out ready to go. I was fortunate enough this year to earn a spot in the rotation, and I’ve done my best to stay here. That doesn’t mean I’ll be here next year.”

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