- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Washington Nationals have made such a habit out of winning in their home ballpark, it has become something of a shock when they don’t.

The group that gathered at Nationals Park on Tuesday night to open a seven-game homestand had been victorious in its last eight games here, the most recent loss having come way back on July 24.

So the crowd of 18,192 that assembled to watch Washington take on the Colorado Rockies — still juiced from Monday night’s signing of top draft pick Stephen Strasburg — almost didn’t know how to react when the home team wound up on the short end of a 4-3 decision.

The thought of a narrow loss to a pennant contender wouldn’t have seemed outrageous only a month ago. But these days, it feels quite out of the ordinary.

Even in loss, the Nationals didn’t play a poor ballgame. Starter Craig Stammen put forth a solid outing. The defense was flawless. There were a couple of early clutch hits.

But that wasn’t enough on this night. Washington couldn’t produce enough offense against flamethrower Ubaldo Jimenez (who tossed eight stellar innings) and relievers Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard each allowed a solo homer late that ultimately proved the difference.

Handed a tie game in the eighth, Burnett served up a lead-off homer to Carlos Gonzalez, leaving his first pitch to the Colorado left fielder way up in the zone. One inning later, Clippard made a mistake to Clint Barmes and watched as the ball soared over the center-field fence to extend the Rockies’ lead to 4-2.

Washington tried to mount a last-ditch rally in the ninth against Huston Street, getting back-to-back two-out hits from Nyjer Morgan and Cristian Guzman and bringing Ryan Zimmerman to the plate with the tying run on third. But the man who has produced so many game-winning thrills over the past four years didn’t have one in him this time.

Zimmerman lined out to left field, and thus the Nationals lost their first home game in nine tries, an impressive run of success for a team that has enjoyed a significant resurrection in the last month.

Not long ago, Washington was 40 games under the .500 mark and seemed destined to lose 110-plus times this season and select No. 1 overall again in next summer’s draft. Not anymore. Even with Tuesday’s loss, this outfit has gone 17-15 under interim manager Jim Riggleman, has drawn within three games of the 29th-place Kansas City Royals and needs only to go 20-23 the rest of the way to avoid 100 losses.

The Nationals probably won’t have Strasburg at their disposal down the stretch — acting general manager Mike Rizzo said Tuesday it’s “very unlikely” the right-hander will pitch in the majors in 2009 — but they will have several other rookie pitchers trying to sustain the upward momentum.

As is to be expected out of rookie pitchers, Stammen has experienced his share of ups and downs this season, generally stringing together three or four solid starts in a row but then struggling for three or four in a row.

Last week in Atlanta, though, the right-hander notched his first quality start in almost a month, and he followed that effort up Monday with another effective performance against the Rockies. Indeed for five innings, he was almost untouchable, allowing only Brad Hawpe’s second-inning solo homer off the top of the center-field fence.

But with his teammates unable to put together much against Jimenez, Stammen had little margin for error. And when he put three straight men on base with one out in the sixth, his night came to a surprisingly quick ending. Riggleman didn’t want to take any chances, so he summoned veteran Ron Villone to face Todd Helton with the bases loaded.

Villone did his job, getting a ground ball out of Helton, but he couldn’t prevent the tying run from scoring. Instead, the Rockies now had runners on second and third with a chance to take the lead.

Enter Jason Bergmann, who has become something of a rally stopper over the last month, the man Riggleman entrusts to pitch his way out of a tight jam. And Bergmann did it once again, needing only one pitch to coax an inning-ending popup and keep the game tied entering the seventh.

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