- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 23, 2009

Maybe it was too much to ask for. Really, after all they’ve been through this season, could anyone have expected the Washington Nationals to sweep a three-game series against a division rival?

In prime position to do that Wednesday, the Nationals instead reverted to their old ways. Unable to produce a clutch hit and unable to get keep their bullpen from imploding, they fell 1-0 to the Atlanta Braves.

What could have been a triumphant homestand turnaround instead ended on a sour note. Despite entering the ninth inning of six straight games either ahead or tied, Washington managed two wins.

“It was tough because we had an opportunity to erase the first week of the season by having a great homestand,” manager Manny Acta said. “It’s over now, but we wasted those three games against the Marlins. We won this series, which is nice, but still we had an opportunity to take the three games and completely erase that first week and get everybody behind us.”

What had been a scoreless game for eight innings Wednesday, thanks to a pair of equally brilliant pitching performances by John Lannan and Jair Jurrjens, turned sour when the Washington bullpen took over in the ninth.

It began with right-hander Garrett Mock, who allowed a one-out single but nearly ended the inning with a fabulous snag of Casey Kotchman’s comebacker. Mock turned and fired to second for the force out, and shortstop Alex Cintron (making his first start of the year) had time to complete the double play but threw wide after getting barreled into by baserunner Matt Diaz.

“I tried to hold my ground,” Cintron said. “I probably should have maybe jumped and tried to make the throw. I catch the ball, and he was right on me. He got my throw away.”

What ensued after that was a painful series of plate appearances. Mock (0-1) walked rookie Jordan Schafer, then gave way to left-hander Mike Hinckley.

Hinckley got ahead of pinch hitter Martin Prado 1-2 but followed with three straight balls to load the bases. Moments later, he walked Kelly Johnson on five pitches, forcing in the night’s only run and drawing a round of boos from the crowd.

“My job is to put hitters away, and I didn’t do my job,” Hinckley said. “If I throw anywhere close, maybe I have a shot. But two short breaking balls, that’s not getting the job done.”

Washington went down quietly in the bottom of the ninth and in the process wasted a fabulous start by Lannan.

After a ragged opening to the season, the Nationals have now gotten six quality starts in their last seven games.

In a week full of strong outings, Lannan authored the biggest gem to date Wednesday. He scattered three singles, two doubles and two walks over seven innings.

Three times in the game’s first four innings Wednesday night, Lannan surrendered a leadoff single. But each time Lannan put a man on base, he hunkered down and got through the inning unscathed, whether that meant getting strikeouts or forcing groundouts.

“I got away with some pitches in the early innings, but I really settled down in the later innings,” Lannan said. “I battled, and I’m glad I finished strong.”

Jurrjens was just as effective at wriggling out of potential harm. He allowed leadoff hits in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings but stranded all the runners with minimal effort.

As the Nationals failed to convert each time, the crowd grew more restless, culminating during a frustrating seventh inning that topped all the previous squandered opportunities.

Josh Willingham led off with a double to left, then took third when Ronnie Belliard dropped down a nifty sacrifice bunt. Needing only to get the ball past a drawn-in Atlanta infield, Washington instead got a sharp grounder to third by Jesus Flores and then a weak popup to short by pinch hitter Austin Kearns on the first pitch.

That was the Nationals’ seventh at-bat of the evening with runners in scoring position. All seven resulted in outs and no runs scored.

“Our situational hitting just continues to bury us,” Acta said. “You win ballgames scoring runs, and we haven’t been doing that.”

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