- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2008

As the Washington Nationals silently packed their bags Monday night after concluding the worst homestand of their new ballpark’s short history, there were certainly plenty of problems, quandaries and issues for the battered club to ponder.

At one time or another during the last week, several of them cropped up at different times: an inconsistent bullpen, starters struggling in the middle innings, the occasional defensive lapses by young fielders.

But one has stood and continues to stand above all the others like a wall that blocks whatever else is ailing the Nationals. It became abundantly clear again Monday in a 3-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants.

When just about everything pointed to a game Washington could have won, its offense - or an absence of it - prevented that from happening.

Despite a salvageable if inconsistent outing from Columbus callup Tyler Clippard and a combined 4 2/3 innings of no-hit ball from their beleaguered bullpen, the Nationals concluded a seven-game homestand with their sixth loss.

They collected nine hits and four walks, and they put the go-ahead run at the plate in the seventh and eighth innings, only to watch their 40th loss of the year come with the absence of clutch hitting that has marked so many others.

Washington scored 18 runs in the seven-game homestand but only eight in the six losses.

“Baseball is not always going to bounce your way,” said Aaron Boone, who grounded into a double play with runners on first and third in the seventh inning. “But when you have quality day-in and day-out, it tends to. We need to do that.”

Clippard came out relatively unscathed in the first four innings despite struggling to throw his fastball for strikes and set up his change-up.

“I wasn’t getting ahead of guys with my fastball,” said Clippard, who struck out six while walking four in 4 1/3 innings. “I was just battling, trying to make it work.”

With runners on second and third in the fifth innings, Bengie Molina lofted a ball toward the left-field warning track that outpaced a backtracking Wily Mo Pena, bounced off the wall in front of the Giants’ bullpen and back in front of Pena and allowed Randy Winn to score all the way from first to give the Giants a 3-1 lead.

“The ball was hit hard to left center,” manager Manny Acta said. “He didn’t drop it. He made a good effort to catch the ball.”

Meanwhile, Giants right-hander Matt Cain became the latest starter to find out all he had to do to win upon entering Nationals Park was throw strikes and watch an impotent lineup turn them into outs.

He threw 107 pitches - 78 for strikes - in 6 1/3 innings, his start stopping short in the seventh inning after Felipe Lopez doubled and Pena singled off of him. But once San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy lifted Cain for Keiichi Yabu, Boone grounded into a double play to end the brief threat.

Washington made another charge in the eighth inning, most of it afforded by three walks from Giants pitchers Alex Hinshaw and Tyler Walker. Molina tried to pick off Willie Harris at second base with two outs. The ball skipped into center field, and Lastings Milledge scored to cut the lead to one.

After Kory Casto walked to load the bases, however, San Francisco again killed the Nationals’ rally with a pitching change. This time, Brian Wilson got Lopez to line a 2-1 fastball to right to end the inning.

There might be some help coming soon. Second baseman Ronnie Belliard was activated from the disabled list after the game, and the Nationals got word that Ryan Zimmerman is healing.

But as Washington was reminded time and again during this homestand, the problems are bigger than one player.

“This is our team,” Acta said. “Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. We shouldn’t feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve just got to keep on fighting and snap out of it.”

WASHINGTON NATIONALS AT PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Where: PNC Park in Pittsburgh

Tuesday: 7:05 p.m., Tim Redding (6-3, 4.15) vs. LHP Paul Maholm (4-5, 4.48)

Wednesday: 7:05 p.m., LHP John Lannan (4-6, 3.47) vs. RHP Ian Snell (2-6, 5.65)

Thursday: 12:35 p.m., RHP Jason Bergmann (1-3, 5.23) vs. LHP Tom Gorzelanny (4-5, 6.83).

Series breakdown: Washington beat Maholm and Snell last month in taking three of four from Pittsburgh at Nationals Park to finish an 11-game homestand at 8-3. This series finds the Nationals in need of a similar boost. While the Nationals scored 21 runs in the early May series against the Pirates, they had managed just 16 in their last eight games heading into Monday.

- Ben Goessling

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