- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

The exhausting delay lasted more than two hours.

The inspiring tying rally took less than 10 minutes to materialize.

But it took another 72 minutes for the inevitable, deflating conclusion: yet another difficult loss for the Washington Nationals.

The box score will show that the Cincinnati Reds beat the Nationals 4-2 in 12 innings on Wednesday. Those barebones facts, though, only begin to describe the bizarre fashion in which a game that included a 2-hour, 10-minute rain delay, a 4-3-6-4-6 double play, Ron Villone’s first earned runs of the year and a “crowd” of perhaps 75 fans lining the front row behind both dugouts at the end was ultimately decided.

The final result, of course, was rather ordinary: Washington lost a ballgame, the 42nd time this club has done so in 57 games this season and the eighth time it has lost in eight extra-inning affairs.

“They’re all the same,” left fielder Adam Dunn said. “But we fought back and tied it. We just weren’t able to scratch out another one.”

This loss was different, though, if for no reason other than the dramatic fashion in which the Nationals tied the game in the ninth following the delay.

The frame began with the Reds leading 2-0. Cincinnati closer Francisco Cordero walked leadoff man Elijah Dukes, then had a 2-2 count on Josh Willingham before a massive thunderstorm struck Nationals Park.

Crew chief Tim McClelland called for the tarp, and players from both teams as well as fans scurried for cover. By the time the rain finally subsided and the field was prepared for play again, the clock read 11:40 p.m. and perhaps 75 of the 19,790 who originally entered the park were still on hand.

Despite the long delay, Reds manager Dusty Baker showed no hesitation in letting Cordero retake the mound. That move backfired big-time.

Willingham managed to draw a walk of his own, putting runners on first and second. Ronnie Belliard struck out, but Josh Bard followed by roping a single to right field that scored Dukes and put Willingham on third representing the tying run. A single up the middle by Alberto Gonzalez — making him 5-for-5 with four RBI as a pinch hitter this season — tied the game and ultimately sent it into extra innings and into Thursday morning.

“Our guys never gave up,” manager Manny Acta said. “That says a lot. They were able to come back and score two runs.”

Each bullpen posted zeroes in the 10th and 11th before the Reds finally struck in the 12th.

Villone, who had been unscored upon in 19 outings this year, walked Jay Bruce to get the inning started on a sour note. The veteran lefty then botched Alex Gonzalez’s sacrifice bunt attempt. After Bruce advanced to third on a passed ball in which no one was covering the base, Acta emerged from his dugout and signaled for right-hander Jason Bergmann to try to escape this mess.

Bergmann nearly pulled it off. He got Ryan Hanigan to hit a sharp grounder to Belliard, setting off a 4-3-6-4-6 double play that also prevented the winning run from scoring. But moments later, pinch hitter Jonny Gomes lofted a double to left, and when Jerry Hairston followed with an RBI single, the Reds had a comfortable two-run lead again.

Washington went down quietly, failing to record a base hit after its ninth-inning rally.

“Very disappointing,” Acta said. “You wait for two hours. Then we come back roaring and score two runs off their closer to tie the ballgame. We just couldn’t finish the deal.”

This punchless offensive effort has become a disturbing trend.

Remember those glorious nights in April and early May when the Nationals could be counted on to score six or more runs a game? They still lost, of course, because their pitching staff was incapable of allowing fewer than seven runs a game. But at least it was entertaining to watch and gave fans reason to wonder what could be if the pitchers could get it together.

Well, the pitchers have figured things out. The starting rotation has produced five strong outings over the club’s last six games. The offense? Well, it hasn’t been pretty.

A Washington lineup that averaged more than five runs over its first 46 games this season has averaged only three over its last 14 games. Is it any surprise the club has lost 12 of those games?

Just about everyone has had a hand in the prolonged slump. Cristian Guzman’s average has dropped 40 points in two weeks. Nick Johnson’s average has dropped 20 points. Ryan Zimmerman hasn’t homered in 16 games. Adam Dunn has two RBI in his last 11 games.

“We weren’t going to score seven runs a game,” Zimmerman said. “I think everyone knew that.”

The Nationals also don’t believe they will score only two runs a game for the rest of the season. There should be a happy medium somewhere in there. But this current lineup hasn’t been able to find it, and the result has been a prolonged stretch of losing.

“I can’t pinpoint it, but I know we are struggling right now offensively,” Acta said. “It’s coming at a really bad time because our pitching is stepping up.”

On Wednesday, the Nationals had Reds right-hander Aaron Harang in trouble all night. They put a man on base in six of the game’s first eight innings yet squandered opportunity after opportunity to score, whether it came in the form of Guzman being stranded on third base with one out or Dunn getting picked off second base to kill a sixth-inning rally.

All of it prevented Shairon Martis from another win. Since his surprising 5-0 start to the season, the 22-year-old has struggled. He hasn’t won in any of his last five outings, and on three of those occasions surrendered five or more runs.

The rookie right-hander, however, was coming off a strong performance his last time out and followed it with a similarly fine showing Wednesday night. He really made only one mistake: his first pitch to Bruce in the second, which the Reds slugger tattooed into the second deck over the right-field bullpen for a two-run homer.

That was the extent of Cincinnati’s offensive output against Martis, who wasn’t helped by his defense — Willingham, making his first career start in right field, dropped a routine line drive — but battled his way through seven innings without allowing another run.

Little did anyone know at the time how this ballgame would end.

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