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In this setup, Nationals lose

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Washington Nationals would like to give Joel Hanrahan a chance to close and see whether the right-hander has the moxie to protect a ninth-inning lead.

Of course, it's tough for Hanrahan to save a ballgame if his bullpen mates can't bridge the gap between starter and closer. Washington's 6-4 loss to the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday night was a prime example of just that. Handed a one-run lead in the eighth and asked to toss a scoreless inning to set up Jon Rauch's replacement as closer, Luis Ayala instead let the Giants slug their way back to victory.

Once a tried-and-trusted setup man, Ayala (1-6) continues to endure a dismal season. His ERA is an unsightly 5.77, and he has allowed an astounding 74 men to reach base in 48 1/3 innings on the mound this year despite a fastball that still reaches 95 mph.

His downfall Wednesday night was swift. Given a 4-3 lead to open the eighth, he was greeted by a leadoff single from Bengie Molina on an 0-2 pitch. Following a flyout, Ayala walked John Bowker on four pitches, then served up a two-run double to Rich Aurilia on a change-up manager Manny Acta called his "fourth-best pitch" and not appropriate for such a situation.

A subsequent RBI double by Omar Vizquel added to the rally and to Ayala's misery.

Afterward, the veteran reliever said he believes his struggles have been mental, not physical.

"My mind isn't strong," Ayala said. "But there's things I can't control. I can't throw the ball with perfect location, so sometimes I make mistakes. This year I'm making a lot of mistakes."

Because of it, Acta has been forced to rethink Ayala's role as setup man.

"Absolutely. He hasn't been successful there," the manager said. "Now we're just going to go with whoever has the hot hand and matchups."

Ayala's meltdown Wednesday denied both Hanrahan a chance to go for his first career save and rookie starter Collin Balester a chance to earn his second career win.

The luster of Balester's big league debut three weeks ago, when he allowed one hit over five impressive innings, has worn off, and the rookie right-hander has learned it takes more than a good arm to succeed at this level.

But the organization's top pitching prospect has shown an ability to give his team a chance even when he's not at his best, as was the case Wednesday when he allowed three runs over five innings.

Balester was greeted rudely by the Giants, who strung together three straight two-out hits in the first to take a 2-0 lead. It looked like it could be a short night for the 22-year-old.

But Balester wriggled his way out of that shaky first without suffering any more damage, and he kept the Giants from scoring again until the fifth, when Molina doubled to right-center to push across another run.

"It feels like once something happens, I start settling in instead of just settling from the beginning," he said. "I've got to, from the first inning on, get settled in instead of giving up two runs and then starting to settle down."

Still, Balester gave the Nationals a chance, and after a slow start they eventually took advantage of it.

Washington had no trouble racking up hits against San Francisco starter Kevin Correia, who surrendered 12 of them in 5 2/3 innings. Runs, however, were a different story. Despite getting singles from their first three hitters of the night, the Nationals managed not to score (thanks to Willie Harris getting picked off first base).

They finally got on the board in the fifth when Bowker booted Harris' groundball to first and allowed Ryan Langerhans to score.

The big hits, though, came in the sixth, beginning with Jesus Flores' two-run homer to left. After a brief lull, the second-year catcher has caught fire again with nine RBI over his last six games. This blast tied the game 3-3 and set the stage for the Nationals to take the lead, which they did.

With a man on second, two outs and the pitcher's spot due up, Acta elected to send up pinch-hitter Johnny Estrada instead. The veteran catcher has endured a wasted season to this point, spending two stints on the DL with an elbow injury and accruing all of 49 at-bats entering Wednesday's game.

This, though, was precisely the kind of situation the Nationals envisioned Estrada thriving in when they signed him for $1.25 million over the winter. And sure enough, he delivered when called upon, sending a base hit up the middle to bring home the go-ahead run.

"It's too bad he got hurt early in the year and he has never been able to get on a roll," Acta said. "But we all know his history, and it's too bad we haven't been able to have that bat here this whole season."

Estrada's clutch hit put Balester in line for the win and set the stage for Washington's new closer to finish things off. Too bad the old setup man couldn't hold the lead.

"I've got a lot of things on my mind now," Ayala said. "Mostly I need more focus and try to take care of my feeling and my confidence."