- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2008

What should have been a jovial scene inside the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse late yesterday afternoon instead was tense and quiet.

Players packed their bags in silence, preparing to head for New York knowing they had just let another ballgame slip away. A 5-4 loss to the Florida Marlins had looked like certain victory not more than an hour earlier, but that was before Luis Ayala took the mound and frittered away the two-run lead that had been supplied by the sharp pitching of Shawn Hill and the clutch hitting of Aaron Boone and Ronnie Belliard.

Instead of leaving town for a four-game series against the Mets with a positive vibe, the Nationals departed having just been swept by the resurgent Marlins in demoralizing fashion.

Not even Washington’s even-keeled, normally upbeat manager could mask his disappointment.

“Every loss is tough,” Manny Acta said. “But this one is just a little bit more discouraging at the end because you played so well and everything goes through your fingers in one inning.”

The crowd of 25,871 at Nationals Park that witnessed this one — many of them booing as the game ended — surely would concur.

A Washington club that desperately needed to salvage a victory after dropping four of its previous five games (capped by Saturday’s 11-0 whitewashing) put itself in perfect position to do just that. Belliard and Boone provided the early offense, each homering with Boone adding an RBI triple. Hill then supplied the quality start, allowing just two runs over seven innings and retiring 13 of the last 15 batters he faced.

“I actually felt better in the seventh inning than I did at any other point,” said the right-hander, who threw 96 pitches. “I’m not sure about my velocity, but I actually felt stronger as the game went on.”

But with the back end of his bullpen well rested, Acta didn’t hesitate to hand over the 4-2 lead to Ayala in the eighth.

Ayala got the first batter he faced, Alfredo Amezaga, to hit a sharp grounder toward first base, where Boone made a nifty play. Ayala, though, failed to cover the base, and Amezaga was safe without drawing a throw, much to the chagrin of the crowd and the Nationals dugout.

“We don’t play the game like that,” Acta said. “Pitching is not just about throwing the ball. Everybody saw today why Shawn Hill has a chance to be a good pitcher. It’s not only about throwing the ball. He fielded his position very well and was able to lay a bunt down. There’s more to it than just throwing a ball.”

Ayala (1-3) struggled with the throwing part of his job, too. His first pitch to the ensuing batter, Jeremy Hermida, was launched into the right-field bleachers. Just like that, Washington’s 4-2 lead had morphed into a tie ballgame.

Not that it remained like that for long. Three batters later, Dan Uggla also took Ayala deep, crushing a 2-2 pitch to right-center for his second homer of the afternoon and fourth in nine games against the Nationals this season.

As Uggla rounded the bases to give the Marlins the lead, much of the crowd booed Ayala, who now has been roughed up for nine runs in his last five appearances.

“He’s just making a lot of mistakes in the middle of the plate,” pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. “All those pitches he threw were right down the middle. In the innings that he’s pitching, you can’t make those types of mistakes.”

St. Claire and Acta were left to speak about their reliever because Ayala refused to talk to reporters for the third time in a week.

Trailing by a run, the Nationals put their leadoff man aboard in both the eighth and ninth innings. They couldn’t push the tying run across, though. Ryan Zimmerman grounded into a double play in the eighth, and Lastings Milledge’s walk in the ninth was squandered when Willie Harris flied out, Elijah Dukes popped out and Jesus Flores grounded out — all in the span of six pitches.

After showing signs of progress by winning eight of 11 at home, the Nationals have lost five of their last six and trail the division-leading Marlins by 8½ games.

“We were kind of cruising along today and let it get away,” Boone said. “It was frustrating. But we’ve got to turn the page. We start a big road trip tomorrow. It’s not going to get any easier. We’ve got to play better, period.”

NEW SERIES

WASHINGTON NATIONALS AT NEW YORK METS

Where: Shea Stadium

Today: 7:10 p.m., LHP Odalis Perez (0-3, 3.43) vs. RHP Nelson Figueroa (2-2, 4.81), MASN HD

Tomorrow: 7:10 p.m., LHP John Lannan (3-3, 3.40) vs. RHP John Maine (4-2, 3.00), MASN2 HD

Wednesday: 7:10 p.m., RHP Tim Redding (4-3, 3.83) vs. TBA, MASN2 HD

Thursday: 1:10 p.m., TBA vs. LHP Johan Santana (4-2, 3.10), MASN HD

Series breakdown: Reeling from their three-game sweep at the hands of the Marlins, the Nationals head north to Queens for a four-game series against the Mets. Tomorrow’s game features a strange matchup: Lannan, a Long Island native, starts for Washington, while Maine, a Fredericksburg, Va., native, starts for New York. The matchups for the final two games remain unknown. The Mets need to name a Wednesday starter, and one of the leading candidates could be former Nationals pitcher Claudio Vargas, currently pitching at Class AAA New Orleans. The Nationals need a starter for Thursday’s finale after they optioned Mike O’Connor to Columbus yesterday. Candidates include Jason Bergmann and Matt Chico.

Mark Zuckerman

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