Single mistake dooms Nats

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MINNEAPOLIS - At this point in their respective building phases, the biggest difference between the Washington Nationals and the Minnesota Twins is legitimate game-changers; namely, the presence of them for the latter club and the absence, at least in the midst of a rash of injuries, for the former.

And while the Twins have a much shorter climb to contention than their former would-be contraction cousins, their 2-1 win over Washington on Tuesday night displayed the disparity between the two teams. While both got commendable performances from their starters, there was one big difference.

It was catcher Joe Mauer (the 2006 American League batting champion) and first baseman Justin Morneau (the AL MVP that year) who provided the necessary offense for Minnesota, maintaining their cool on a night when both teams went to the plate hacking and punishing John Lannan for the few mistakes he made.

The contrast was obvious on a night when the Nationals fell victim to a pitcher who knows them well. Former Washington starter Livan Hernandez threw just 77 pitches in seven innings, throwing first-pitch strikes and then feasting on a young lineup.

And instead of netting their first four-game win streak since May 1, the Nationals lost in 1 hour, 59 minutes.

“Tonight, he threw strike one, and we got overly aggressive,” manager Manny Acta said. “He knows how to do that.”

Washington took a 1-0 lead in the third inning. Paul Lo Duca doubled in his first at-bat since breaking his hand May 8, and after Kory Casto moved him to third with a groundout, Cristian Guzman brought Lo Duca home with a high chopper off the Metrodome turf, the kind of hit that made him an All-Star for the Twins in 2001.

Lannan rolled through the first 5 2/3 innings, gradually gaining the fastball command that has defined his best starts this season. Ten of his first 15 outs came on ground balls, and he took advantage of a Twins team that, aside from Mauer, swung early in counts.

But then Mauer and Morneau, the two cornerstones who define Minnesota’s present and future, got to Lannan in the sixth.

Mauer fouled off five of the six fastballs Lannan threw him, including three straight to start his at-bat, then lashed a slider back up the middle for a single. Then, when Lannan threw another curve to the inside half of the plate - a pitch Acta said wasn’t in the Nationals’ game plan - Morneau crushed it 421 feet into the right-field upper deck.

“It was a curveball up, and he hit it a long way,” Lannan said. “I threw a good one to him the first at-bat. He’s right. I shouldn’t have been throwing that pitch in that situation. It was just a mistake.”

He threw four pitches or less to 18 of the 23 batters he faced, and the Nationals had only two hits after the third inning, both of which were followed with double plays.

“He was able to control that outside part of the plate,” Acta said. “Usually, guys took the first pitch, and he threw it for a strike. He was able to get ahead and expand the zone on them.”

After seven innings, Hernandez was done for the night, and the Twins’ formidable bullpen had a 2-1 lead to protect. It did, with Joe Nathan working the ninth for his 18th save and ensuring Washington would be held to one run or less for the seventh time this month.

This time, it might have been enough to win but for two young stars who know very much what they’re doing.

“We were aggressive. We just couldn’t find any holes,” center fielder Lastings Milledge said. “They were aggressive today, too. They just came up with the big home run.”

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