- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2008

The story floating around baseball for the last 24 hours - that the Washington Nationals again were positioning themselves to derail a pennant race for the New York Mets - looked good heading into the third night of a four-game series between the two teams at Nationals Park. The main reason for that was in the first two games the Nationals avoided what got them in so much trouble with the Mets at Shea Stadium just a week earlier.

Those looking to paint the Nationals as the Mets’ foil for a second straight season assumed Washington would continue to sidestep the fire-breathing middle of New York’s order, not cave into it like it did in a pair of crooked-numbered losses last week.

With the chance to beat the Mets for a third straight night and overcome an offense adept at creating chances but not always at finishing them, though, the Nationals’ pitching staff blinked in a 9-7 loss.

Instead of frustrating New York’s top hitters like they did the last two nights, the Nationals got torched by them. Starter Shairon Martis was gone after three innings, just as John Lannan and Odalis Perez were in the two losses last week.

And the end result looked a lot more like those two games (10-8 and 13-10 losses). This one was a defeat that halted a two-game win streak and at least temporarily stalled talk of the Nationals’ spoiler status.

“They score enough runs. They kept coming,” manager Manny Acta said. “Everybody we brought out of the bullpen couldn’t stop them.”

Struggles with Martis’ delivery left his fastball running up and over the plate most of the night, and the hitters who launched balls out of the park against him had familiar names: Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran.

Those three blasts, combined with Daniel Murphy’s triple that brought in Reyes, had New York up 6-1 by the end of the third inning and Martis out of the game.

“Since I was in the bullpen, I was feeling like my ball was all over the place,” Martis said. “I think maybe I was dropping my arm too much. It’s hard because during the game you don’t have people who come and say, ‘You’re doing this. You’re doing that.’”

The Nationals forced New York to use eight pitchers, including five to get the last six outs, but ultimately had too many times where they got one hit too few.

After driving in Lastings Milledge with a double to deep center in the second inning, Kory Casto was doubled off second base after Carlos Beltran caught Emilio Bonifacio’s low liner.

The Nationals scored another run in the fourth but couldn’t squeeze any more than that out of two hits and three walks. Willie Harris walked and Cristian Guzman singled to start the fifth, but Ryan Zimmerman, Milledge and Elijah Dukes went down in order.

None of those innings, however, ended in as puzzling a fashion as the sixth.

Washington again posted a run when pinch hitter Alberto Gonzalez brought Bonifacio home with a single. That turned the lineup over, and there was potential for the inning to continue when Harris walked.

But before Harris could trot to first, Gonzalez was out at third. He took off thinking the ball got by Mets catcher Brian Schneider, but he was thrown out easily trying to steal.

“Not by any means was he trying to trick anybody,” Acta said. “He just didn’t see the ball very well.”

Instead of coming up with runners on first and second, Guzman led off the seventh with a single and eventually scored on Dukes’ 13th homer of the season.

That homer made it 8-5 Mets. But then Beltran homered again, this time from the right side of the plate.

He ripped a 2-0 pitch from Charlie Manning off the back wall of the Mets’ bullpen in left field, widening the lead to four.

It was the eighth homer Manning had given up in 38 2/3 innings this season, coming eight days after Beltran and Delgado hit two in the span of three pitches off him during a 10-8 Mets win, and the sixth time Beltran homered from both sides of the plate in his career.

The counts on all three homers Manning gave up between the two games favored the hitters.

“It’s a case of pitching behind in the count,” Acta said. “If you pitch 2-0, they’re going to hit you here.”

There was time for the Nationals to rally in the eighth and ninth, but both started and ended like plenty of others; the first two hitters in each inning reached only to end the inning on base.

The game concluded with former Nationals reliever Luis Ayala striking out Roger Bernadina, who represented the tying run.

“I’ve always said you have to pitch almost perfect against these guys to win,” catcher Wil Nieves said. “We made a couple mistakes today, and they made us pay.”

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