- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

PHILADELPHIA | Getting into an offensive battle with the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park is one of those things that’s so dangerous that it should come with the kind of legalistic disclaimer usually reserved for cigarette cartons or bungee jumps. Especially with a bullpen in as tenuous a state as the Washington Nationals’ group.

To be fair, it’s not how the Nationals would have preferred to structure their 13-11 loss to the World Series champions Monday night. But despite a five-homer barrage that highlighted an offensive bounty better than anything the Nationals have put together this year, Washington’s bullpen again proved it can be hazardous to the team’s health.

The Phillies scored six runs in the eighth, all of them taking root in miscalculations or missed pitches by Garrett Mock and Joel Hanrahan. The latter said he walked Jayson Werth and Ryan Howard to load the bases in part because he was afraid of giving up a home run.

“I hope I don’t wear out this word, but again it was just deflating,” manager Manny Acta said. “It’s the toughest thing in the game when you’ve played so hard for eight innings, score enough runs and you lose the game in one inning. It’s just tough for the whole team.”

The Nationals had a 6-2 lead by the middle of the fifth, all of the runs coming on picturesque home runs. Ryan Zimmerman hit two of them, the latter an estimated 451 feet to the second deck in left. Elijah Dukes hit a ball onto Ashburn Alley, the walkway behind the seats in left center, in the third.

But like a loaded spring, all it meant was that the recoil would be even more definitive.

The Phillies loaded the bases on Shairon Martis in the fifth, bringing the 2006 NL MVP to the plate. Martis started Howard with three straight sliders low and inside, and the ravenous slugger swung at them all, fouling off two. Martis’ fourth pitch was a fastball away, but he missed too far outside to get Howard interested. Then he came back with another slider - aimed where Howard had swung at the previous three but inclined slightly toward the middle of the plate.

The result came with numbing inevitability. Howard golfed the pitch over the center-field wall, tying the score at 6-6 and sending the crowd into a frenzy.

“I was trying to get him to chase [the slider],” Martis said. “I didn’t throw my best one.”

With the score tied at 7-7 and three innings remaining, the game came down to two bullpens - the Nationals’ rickety unit and the Phillies’ smooth machine. Improbably, it looked like a battle the Nationals might win. Kip Wells got through the seventh without a hitch, and Washington retook a four-run lead in the eighth with emphatic two-run homers from Nick Johnson and Adam Dunn.

The Nationals also prevented the Phillies from going to the Ryan Madson-Brad Lidge combination that built Philadelphia’s 79-0 record when leading after eight innings last year. All that did, though, was set up the Nationals’ bullpen for a dramatic fall.

Mock gave up three hits in the eighth, giving way to Hanrahan with the Nationals’ lead at 11-9. Then Hanrahan, who had blown two of his four save opportunities this year, walked Howard and Werth.

“This is the first time I’ve thought about, ‘If I give up a home run right here, oh crap,’ ” Hanrahan said. “I don’t know why it happened.”

After the walks, he put a first-pitch fastball on the inner half of the plate to Raul Ibanez, who hit it out. It was the Phillies’ second grand slam, the first time they had done that since Sept. 9, 2003. And it ran Ibanez’s line against the Nationals this year to 7-for-14 with two home runs and eight RBI.

It also might yield an open call for a closer. Acta wouldn’t commit to Hanrahan or demote him, saying the team wouldn’t do anything out of reaction. Besides, Acta said, “it’s not like we have Rollie Fingers and Mariano Rivera.”

What the Nationals do have is an obvious problem.

“I hate putting blame on my teammates, and I’m not here to do that,” Zimmerman said. “But we know what we need to get better at, and hopefully we will.”

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