- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2008

PHILADELPHIA | They all stood there in the dugout, soaked by three hours’ worth of rain and wind, beaten down by 100 losses in a single baseball season, watching a far-superior team and its fans celebrate as they moved one step closer to a division title.

At that moment, at the end of an 8-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, there wasn’t much the Washington Nationals could get excited about. But perhaps these young players, the 16 rookies who were in uniform Friday night, will glean something from the losses.

“It’s a really good experience for guys,” first baseman Kory Casto said. “Hopefully, later in their career when it really means something, they’ve been there before. That can be big.”

It’s tough for the Nationals to think in those kind of future-benefit terms at the moment. The sting of a season gone awry is first and foremost on everyone’s minds.

And Friday’s loss - in which the Phillies beat up on rookie right-hander Collin Balester and took a 7-1 lead after two innings - was historic in its own right. It leaves Washington with a 59-100 record, a standard of futility that has been accepted around baseball for more than a century.

Triple-digit losses had been reached only twice before in franchise history (by the 1969 and 1976 Montreal Expos). It had happened only nine previous times in Washington baseball history (most recently in 1964 by the expansion Senators).

“A loss is a loss to me,” manager Manny Acta said. “Once you lose over 90 games, you’ve lost way too many anyways.”

One of the many current Nationals players who have never experienced anything like this is Balester, who was looking forward to pitching under the bright lights. He wound up turning in his worst performance of the season.

The 22-year-old right-hander never had a chance. Eight of the 13 batters he faced reached base, four by extra-base hit.

“Early in the game it looked like he wasn’t letting it go for some reason, like he was holding back,” catcher Luke Montz said. “I’ve never seen that out of him before.”

Balester particularly struggled against the vaunted heart of the Phillies’ lineup. No. 3 hitter Chase Utley singled and scored in the first, then sent a bases-loaded double off the left-field wall in the second. Cleanup man Ryan Howard, meanwhile, clubbed a three-run homer to center in the first, then added an RBI double in the second that officially ended Balester’s night.

The rookie pitcher’s final line: 1 2/3 innings, seven runs, seven hits.

“It was a horrible day,” he said. “Just a horrible game.”

Thus, a once-promising major league debut ended on a decidedly sour note. The organization’s top high-level pitching prospect, Balester finished 3-7 with a 5.51 ERA, almost a full run higher than it was two starts ago.

“He had his ups and downs,” Acta said. “It all depends on what we do during the offseason and what we do in spring training for us to consider whether the kid is ready to have a spot to start next year here.”

Down 7-1 and the crowd of 44,145 in a frenzy, the Nationals did put a brief scare into the division leaders.

Washington scored a pair of runs in the fifth, then got a big - albeit controversial - blast from Casto an inning later. The rookie tagged a pitch from starter Joe Blanton deep to right, then watched as a fan reached out to attempt to catch the ball.

It was immediately ruled a home run, but after Phillies manager Charlie Manuel argued, three-fourths of the umpiring crew retreated under the stands to take another look at the play in the only the fifth instance to date of instant replay in baseball history.

The crew needed only two minutes and 17 seconds to return to the field and render its decision: The call stood.

“I’m sure they got a better look up there with their replay system,” Casto said. “They made the right call.”

Casto also was front and center for the night’s other controversial moment. Leading off the ninth, he convinced plate umpire Andy Fletcher he had foul-tipped strike three into the ground, a decision that sent Manuel into a tizzy, which eventually got the Philadelphia manager ejected.

Manuel’s time in banishment didn’t last long. Closer Brad Lidge still struck out Casto and then retired the side to end the game, make the Nationals’ 100th loss official and give a dugout full of rookies a taste of meaningful late-September baseball.

“For a young guy, it was great to come here and play,” Montz said. “It was awesome.”