- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2009

DENVER | Of the Washington Nationals’ many two-plus-two-equals-five losses this season - the ones that seem to defy logic - few have involved a pitching performance this crafty or fielding this effective in preventing runs.

The Nationals have lost plenty of games on a bullpen meltdown or a botched fly ball. But they haven’t lost when one of their rookie starters weaves through a hot team and they generate enough opportunities to beat a dominant pitcher.

But there’s that common denominator: opportunity. That has been a theme of plenty of losses this year, with missed chances to score possibly being the most consistent companion of all the other harebrained traits of Washington’s defeats.

That’s how the Nationals lost 1-0 to the Colorado Rockies on Monday night. Craig Stammen stood unflinchingly against soaring Rockies ace Jason Marquis for seven innings, holding a team that has scored 169 runs in 32 games since June 1 to a single tally. The Nationals bailed him out with uncharacteristically sure-handed fielding, including three double plays.

Their offense never could boost Stammen over the top. It wasn’t for lack of effort - the Nationals got seven hits off Marquis and loaded the bases twice - but it rarely is with this team.

“We had runners on third with less than two outs and couldn’t get it done, but you’ve got to give credit to Marquis,” manager Manny Acta said. “Our guys know what it takes to get it done. We recently talked about that. But Marquis was just outstanding today.”

Marquis, coming off a two-hitter against the Dodgers on June 30, had almost as easy of a time with a Nationals lineup that probably possessed more punch than Los Angeles’ offense but couldn’t muster enough plate discipline to stretch the right-hander.

Of the first 24 outs Marquis recorded, 14 were on ground balls. He threw just 80 pitches through seven innings. Sixty-one of those went for strikes.

Left fielder Adam Dunn, who had faced Marquis 37 times before Monday, said the pitcher was “not even close” to what he remembered.

“When I first faced him, he threw about 95 [mph], straight as an arrow,” Dunn said. “Someone taught him a sinker. The difference between him now and in the past is he throws every pitch for a strike. It used to be he’d walk you.”

When the Nationals finally rallied in the seventh - Dunn doubled off the right-field wall before Josh Willingham singled to left - Marquis induced a comebacker to the mound from Cristian Guzman and caught Dunn loitering off third.

A Josh Bard single was enough to load the bases but not to score a run. That became critical when Ronnie Belliard grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, ending the inning and one of the Nationals’ two chances to beat Marquis.

“Belliard missed his pitch,” Acta said. “He missed that fastball up, fouled it off and [then] grounded into a double play. You don’t get that many pitches to hit at the big league level.”

In the eighth, Nyjer Morgan and Nick Johnson singled with one out, and Ryan Zimmerman moved the runners up with a fielder’s choice. Choosing to bypass the Nationals’ best power hitter (Dunn) for their hottest hitter (Willingham), the Rockies’ bold move worked when Willingham lifted a tame fly ball to right for the third out.

Replicating almost the same formula Marquis used, Stammen nearly matched the Rockies’ ace for seven innings, needing a little more luck than Marquis did but getting out of jams just as effectively.

“He’s a pitcher a lot like me, throws a lot of sinkers,” Stammen said. “He’s a guy I need to be like in the future.”

His sinking fastball got sharper as the game wore on, leading to nine outs on ground balls.

Stammen gave up two hits and a walk in the first inning, which accounted for Colorado’s only run against him. But he got a double play to end that inning, and the last three hits the Rockies got off him were harmless.

Stammen’s effort, though, only counted for promise of days when the Nationals’ offense can fare better - not ones when they make three outs against closer Huston Street on six pitches. That ended the game, one of the best of Stammen’s short career, in a scant 2 hours, 12 minutes.

“I still didn’t come away with the ‘W,’ ” Stammen said. “That’s the end result. That’s what matters.”

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