- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 18, 2009

The conditions were lining up like a gathering storm, positioning the Washington Nationals to follow their first win of the year with an even more impressive one against a team that has given them more trouble than any in the majors over the past two years.

John Lannan had regained his stuff. The Nationals had scraped together a 2-1 lead despite their inability to break open an inning. Their new-look bullpen was holding firm for the second night in a row.

And despite the fact that manager Manny Acta was watching the game from his office for just the second time in his career, there was a feeling that Washington was about to survive for the kind of narrow win that sustains winning streaks and clubhouses.

Instead, it became the kind of demoralizing loss the Nationals seem to find so often against the Florida Marlins.

A one-run lead in the ninth evaporated on Cody Ross’ homer off Joel Hanrahan. Saul Rivera and Jesus Flores started walking off the field in the 10th inning, thinking they’d preserved a tie game, only to realize home plate umpire Tim Timmons called ball three, not strike three against Dan Uggla, keeping the Marlins’ inning alive on the same issue that got Acta ejected from the game seven innings earlier.

It all felt so familiar after that - Uggla’s soft single to right, Jeremy Hermida’s grounder too deep in the hole for Alberto Gonzalez to field, the stranded baserunner in the bottom of the 10th. And it ended with a pang of deja vu: a 3-2, 10-inning Marlins win. It was the 18th time in 21 games Washington has lost to Florida.

Jesus Flores took an inside pitch for strike three in the bottom of the 10th, and Gonzalez swung at a neck-high fastball to end the game.

The battle over the strike zone with Timmons only made the evening more frustrating for the Nationals. Acta said something to Timmons from the dugout after Elijah Dukes struck out in the third and was immediately ejected. He went out to talk to Timmons after that, but then turned the game over to bench coach Jim Riggleman. It was the first time Acta had been thrown out since Lannan’s big-league debut on July 26, 2007.

“All I told him was, ‘I think that’s too much,’ that he was giving him too much,” Acta said. “You know how it is. Nowadays, you can’t even talk to them. Some of them even feel, the more people they throw out, the better umpires and the bigger macho they are. That’s all there was to it.”

Making his first home start of the year after a couple of disastrous outings on the road, Lannan did the same things he did in his finer evenings last year. He relied heavily on two fastballs: a four-seamer that touched 91 mph on occasion and a two-seamer that showed the crisp bite it has when the 24-year-old is throwing well. Sixty-five of his 99 pitches were strikes, and aside from the high fastball he threw to John Baker in the fourth inning that wound up landing in the right-field seats, Lannan made few mistakes.

“I executed pitches a little bit more, made the pitches when I needed to,” said Lannan, who entered the game with a 10.00 ERA. “[I] limited my mistakes and just attacked the strike zone.”

He left with the Nationals up 2-1 in the seventh inning. And he might have earned his first win of the year, but for a hanging slider from Hanrahan.

Instead of throwing his high-90s fastball to Ross on a 2-2 pitch, Hanrahan went to his next-best offering, his slider. It didn’t break like he’d hoped, and Ross hit it just over the left-field fence to tie the game at 2.

“He got on the side of one,” Acta said. “His slider is a good pitch for him. He tried to overthrow that one.”

The Nationals missed a few opportunities to salt the game away.

Despite getting 11 hits and knocking Florida starter Ricky Nolasco out of the game after four innings with a methodical attack that forced him to throw 80 pitches in that time, Washington couldn’t scratch out more than two runs. Even those came from the periphery of the lineup as Alberto Gonzalez continued his early-season tear with three hits, including a fourth-inning double that scored Jesus Flores all the way from first.

Anderson Hernandez brought Gonzalez in with a single two batters later. But the extra runs never came, and with a margin that close, the game funneled down the drain, as it often does against the Marlins.

“That’s the thing that’s been killing us,” Acta said. “You have to add on when you have the opportunity. It’s a lot of pressure to come in and save the game by one run. He made a mistake and paid for it.”