- The Washington Times - Friday, August 15, 2008

On the bright side, at least there was a little bit of drama to the Washington Nationals‘ latest loss.

Of course, the end result remained the same, so Thursday night’s 9-3 loss to the New York Mets - in which the Nationals rallied within two runs in the seventh inning before imploding in the ninth - goes down no differently than Wednesday’s 12-0 drubbing by the same opponent.

All of which leaves Washington limping into the weekend having lost seven straight while taking a stranglehold on the race to finish with the worst record in the majors this season and secure the No. 1 draft pick next season.

The Nationals (44-78) were manhandled by the superior Mets during a three-game sweep at Nationals Park. This after dropping four straight in Milwaukee, a stretch of losing that can test clubhouse patience.

“We definitely feel that we should be playing better,” right fielder Austin Kearns said. “Yeah, we ran into some good pitching, but you’re always learning in this game, learning how to try to win. That’s part of the whole process.”

In Thursday’s loss, one of Washington’s most promising young pitchers, Collin Balester, faltered while trying to find the strike zone.

Since his dazzling debut at Florida on July 1, Balester (2-5) has fallen into a similar path: dominate hitters the first time around, then struggle to retire those same hitters when they come back up to the plate.

Career start No. 8 featured just that scenario. The good part: Balester cruised through the Mets’ lineup for three innings, allowing only one of the first 10 batters to reach base. The bad part: He came unglued after that, allowing New York to score twice in the fourth, twice in the fifth and again in the sixth.

“These guys are great hitters,” the 22-year-old right-hander said. “They see me the first time through, and they want to see what I have to offer. And then the second time through, I think they’re a little bit more patient and know exactly what I’m going to do. I’ve just got to switch it up a little bit.”

Balester made only two real mistakes, fastballs to Brian Schneider in the fifth and Carlos Delgado in the sixth that wound up in the seats. His bigger problem was an inability to find the strike zone consistently, leading to five walks and a 50-47 strikes and balls ratio that won’t cut it for long in the big leagues.

Because of his early success, Balester was able to make it through the sixth inning for only the second time since joining the Washington rotation. If he can work out his control issues and enjoy as much success the second time around the lineup as he does the first, he might start pitching even deeper into games.

“This is the big leagues, and guys make adjustments,” manager Manny Acta said. “A guy not only hits in the first inning. He spends the next two innings looking at you and trying to make adjustments. That’s an [important] step for him, especially when you face a good lineup.”

Not that it would have made much difference Thursday the way Balester’s teammates flailed away at left-hander Oliver Perez for most of the night. The gifted but often erratic Perez had his way with the majors’ worst-hitting club for six innings, allowing just three hits without surrendering a run.

The Nationals finally struck in the seventh, getting a clutch hit from a most unlikely source. With two on and two out, pinch hitter Pete Orr (batting just .217 in limited playing time) laced a triple off the top of the right-center field fence that brought the crowd of 31,058 back to life.

Emilio Bonifacio was up next with a chance to continue the rally, and the slumping rookie delivered thanks to some creativity. Mired in a 1-for-27 slump and having struck out in each of his previous three at-bats Thursday, Bonifacio surprised the Mets by pushing a bunt past Delgado at first base. Orr scored from third, and the Nationals’ deficit was down to two runs.

But New York’s beleaguered bullpen buckled down to close things out, and closer Joel Hanrahan - pitching in a nonsave situation - allowed four runs (two earned) to come across in the ninth, sealing Washington’s fate.

“We had momentum for a little bit,” Orr said. “But they did a good job of shutting us down the next inning. It was a tough night all around, I guess.”



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