- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 4, 2009

When Ross Detwiler has a bad outing, the left-hander’s synopsis more often than not comes down to his fastball, and specifically, where in his delivery he’s releasing it. Through a year and a half in the minor leagues and a menagerie of promise and pratfalls in nine big league starts, Detwiler’s success has been defined mostly by how well he can get his fastball sinking.

At this point in the 23-year-old’s development, that’s still not happening consistently. Maybe it’s a product of Detwiler getting comfortable with his delivery again after the Nationals tried to tweak his mechanics, or maybe it’s the process of learning to produce in the big leagues. But again Friday, the 2007 first-round pick showed he’s not ready to have it all there, all the time.

The Nationals’ 9-8 loss to the Atlanta Braves, though colored by a resurgent offense and a redoubtably bad bullpen, was ultimately defined by Detwiler and the learning process he’s going through every five days on a major league mound. His release point - the moment in his downward arm action when he lets go of the ball - was there in the bullpen before Friday’s game; when he started the game, it was gone.

Detwiler’s call-up, precipitated by a need for a spot starter after a doubleheader, wasn’t meant to be a long one. And whether the Nationals decide to continue his maturation process here or at Class AAA Syracuse, it was clear again Friday he has a ways to go.

Struggling through the worst outing of his big league career, Detwiler left a game that was there for the taking in the hands of the Nationals’ bullpen, which caved under a load of walks in the seventh inning and dragged the Nationals to their sixth loss in seven games.

“He struggled mightily. He couldn’t get the ball down at all,” manager Manny Acta said. “Every pitch was up. Every one of them. That’s a veteran club, and if you can’t get the ball down, they’ll hit you.”

The 3 1/3 innings Detwiler pitched were the fewest of his nine major league starts, his early exit the price for a fastball that wasn’t sinking like it should. He gave up 10 hits - seven of them singles - and five runs, hurt by paper cuts instead of one fatal blow.

Following an outing June 20 in which he gave up two runs on six hits in seven innings, Detwiler has searched in vain for the same repeatable delivery that helped him throw 65 of his 99 pitches for strikes that night.

He threw 56 of 91 for strikes last week in Baltimore, having the same struggles with his fastball that he did Friday night and allowing five runs and nine hits in five innings.

“It’s a feeling,” Detwiler said. “You’ve just got to go out there and get the right feeling for where you release the ball.”

It’s a juncture the Nationals figured to reach with some of their young pitchers; Detwiler’s struggles are coming on the heels of Shairon Martis being optioned to Class AAA Syracuse. But the work-in-progress didn’t have to cost Washington a win Friday night if its bullpen could have done even a respectable job.

The two most recent additions to the Nationals’ effort to solve the bullpen’s yearlong ineptitude did their job. Tyler Clippard overcame scattershot control and allowed only a hit in two innings, and Sean Burnett struck out the two batters he was called on to face - switch hitter Chipper Jones and left-handed hitter Brian McCann.

But the next three relievers (Jesus Colome, Ron Villone and Julian Tavarez) started giving out walks as if they were items on a clearance rack. The veteran trio issued five in all, though one of Villone’s was intentional.

Colome walked two of the first four batters he faced in a tie game. Pinch hitter Brooks Conrad came to the plate with two outs and zero major league home runs to his credit, but the three-run shot he punched into the Nationals’ bullpen flew out almost as if it were ordained by the baseball gods as punishment for Colome walking those hitters.

The reliever, whose ERA is now 8.40, declined to comment. “Not today. I don’t feel good today,” Colome said.

A Nationals offense that kept scratching back eventually came up one run short. Josh Bard grounded the first pitch he saw from Rafael Soriano to first to end the game with Cristian Guzman on second.

“I don’t know how many times we can sit here and say we’re better than what we are,” left fielder Adam Dunn said. “We need to find a way to win these games and not lose them.”

Dunn wasn’t the only one searching for something Friday night. Detwiler was too.

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