- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 30, 2009

ST. LOUIS | Once again, the Washington Nationals’ bullpen showed it struggles mightily to keep games under control.

In the span of seven hitters Saturday night at Busch Stadium, Nationals retread relievers Ron Villone and Jorge Sosa turned a one-run game into a rout. They allowed three extra-base hits that produced five runs as St. Louis pulled away for a 9-4 victory.

The loss jeopardized the Nationals’ pursuit of their first winning month in nearly two years. They are 14-13 in August with two games left to play in the month. The club’s last winning month came in September, 2007.

If the Nationals are to pursue greater goals than a winning month, they must improve the pitching. Interim manager Jim Riggleman said starting pitching, as always, remains the No. 1 priority, but help for the bullpen would be good, too.

The numbers say it all. The Nationals’ bullpen is 17-36 with a 5.15 ERA, highest in the majors.

“It’s an area that you can improve in the offseason,” Riggleman said earlier Saturday. “There are opportunities to address that. … With the bullpen, sometimes the dollars get eaten up in other areas, and you have to rely on some people who maybe weren’t quite ready to get the job done.”

Starter Craig Stammen forced Riggleman to dip into the bullpen earlier than desired. For the fourth time in his last seven starts, Stammen failed to make it through the fifth inning.

In the opening inning, Stammen ventured inside with fastballs to Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday and didn’t get burned. Both popped up to the infield.

Stammen switched tactics in the third and ended up losing a 1-0 lead.

He tried to work Pujols away and ended up walking him to put two runners on for Holliday. Stammen wanted to put a first-pitch slider on the outside half of the plate, but it stalled over the middle. Holliday drove it to left for a three-run homer.

When Stammen first appeared in the majors this season, his sinker and slider were “heavy” and hard to lift. That is changing. After allowing only five homers in his first 60 2/3 innings, Stammen has given up eight in his past 45 innings.

Stammen rallied from the Holliday homer and retired the next seven hitters. The streak ended with Pujols’ two-out double in the fifth. But it unraveled from there.

Riggleman had Holliday intentionally walked to give Stammen a shot at the less-imposing Ryan Ludwick. Stammen got a grounder to the left side on a sinker, but Pujols fouled up the play for the Nationals.

Running from second, Pujols slowed to screen shortstop Cristian Guzman from the ball. That forced Guzman to stay back, putting him in no position to handle a late hop. Four runs wound up scoring.

Pujols scored on the error, and Riggleman pulled Stammen for Villone, a left-hander, to face Colby Rasmus. It was the obvious move. Rasmus was hitting only .140 for 86 at-bats against left-handers.

This lefty could not get the ball past him. Rasmus fouled three 2-2 fastballs pitches, forcing Villone to switch to a slider. Rasmus pounded it to right for a three-run homer and a 7-2 lead.

Like Villone in the fifth, Sosa could not get the final out of the sixth without running into difficulties.

Sosa, whose ERA rose to 7.71, allowed three consecutive two-out hits. The last of the hits, by Brendan Ryan and Pujols, each drove in a run. Pujols’ double off the left-field walled carried with nearly as much force as his game-winning homer off reliever Jason Bergmann on Friday.

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