- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2008

The ballgame was there for the taking. The Washington Nationals had gotten another strong start from rookie John Lannan. They finally had rallied to score off Texas Rangers right-hander Vicente Padilla and tie the game entering the eighth inning.

They just couldn’t get the bullpen to hold up its end.

Sunday’s 5-3 loss at Nationals Park could be attributed directly to the three runs surrendered by Luis Ayala and Joel Hanrahan, a pair of relievers who have consistently been inconsistent for Washington this season.

And because of that, the Nationals’ greatest strength the past three years often has been a significant detriment in 2008.

“It’s struggling right now,” pitching coach Randy St. Claire said of his bullpen. “They’re just making mistakes over the middle of the plate. They’re getting hurt on some pitches that they’re leaving up over the middle of the plate.”

That is, when they find the strike zone. Ayala and Hanrahan combined to issue three walks during their two innings of work Sunday, and two in particular proved costly.

Ayala, who already had allowed one run to score in the seventh, was given a chance to open the eighth of a 3-3 game and immediately walked Brandon Boggs on four pitches. Manager Manny Acta wasted no time taking the ball from him and handing it to Hanrahan.

The big right-hander with perhaps the best fastball on the staff blew away both Michael Young and Josh Hamilton, but Boggs stole second on strike three to Hamilton, and then Hanrahan made his biggest gaffe of the afternoon. He walked Marlon Byrd to prolong the inning, uncorking a wild pitch along the way that moved Boggs to third.

“I worked hard and got Young and Hamilton out, and then I threw some pitches to Byrd that he’s been swinging at, the fastballs up,” said Hanrahan, who has issued 28 walks in 47 1/3 innings this season. “He didn’t chase it this time, and it came back to bite me.”

Indeed it did because pinch-hitter Frank Catalanotto grounded Hanrahan’s next pitch into left field to score Boggs and put the Rangers on top for good. Another single by Jarrod Saltalamacchia added an insurance run, and Washington never recovered en route to its fifth loss in six games.

There are plenty of reasons for the Nationals’ struggles all year, most of them involving the majors’ least productive offense. But the demise of the Washington bullpen, which has seen its collective ERA jump nearly a full run to 4.57 from 2007 to 2008, has been perhaps the most surprising development.

The loss of closer Chad Cordero to a shoulder injury hasn’t helped, but the remaining group hasn’t been able to make up for the loss. Of the 14 men who have pitched in relief for the Nationals this season, seven have posted ERAs over 5.40.

“This is our bullpen,” Acta said. “It’s not going to change. So they’ve got to keep working, get out there, get after them tomorrow again. They’re going to have good days and bad days, and we’re just going to have to deal with it.”

The late relief struggles Sunday squandered Washington’s comeback attempt. Trailing 2-0 in the sixth, Willie Harris launched a solo homer to get things started. Ayala (1-4) gave the Rangers another run in the seventh, but Ronnie Belliard picked him up in the bottom of inning by clubbing a two-run homer to tie the game and take Lannan (who recorded his 11th quality start in 15 outings) off the hook from potentially suffering his ninth loss.

But that’s when things unraveled for good. Ayala and Hanrahan combined to allow two more runs in the eighth, and the Nationals went down quietly after that. A crowd of 32,690 shuffled out of the ballpark unhappy, and Washington’s relievers retreated to their clubhouse to contemplate another squandered opportunity.

Story Continues →