- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 25, 2009

At the end of what was perhaps his final night on a big league mound for a while, Craig Stammen could only sigh at the one costly pitch he threw to the Boston Red Sox. The other 85 offerings the Washington Nationals rookie hurled up there at one of the sport’s most potent lineups were mostly effective. But that one - a full-count change-up to David Ortiz in the top of the fourth - still weighed on his mind.

“That was a pretty big mental mistake on my part,” he said. “I’ve got to be able to shake that pitch off and throw what I wanted to throw.”

Rather than shake off catcher Wil Nieves and stick with his bread-and-butter fastball, Stammen instead heaved an 83 mph change-up over the plate and up in the zone. And Ortiz tattooed it. By the time the ball landed some 425 feet from the plate in dead center field, the Red Sox had the defining blow in what became a 6-4 victory over the Nationals.

“The whole game was based on that 3-2 change-up to David,” Washington manager Manny Acta said. “I think next time around, he’ll know that he has to go to his best pitch in that type of situation.”

These are the lessons a rookie starter must learn. And since the Nationals have four rookies in their starting rotation, there are plenty of lessons these young pitchers are learning during an otherwise wretched season.

Wednesday’s loss, which came before a record-setting crowd of 41,530 at Nationals Park, was only the latest in a long list of frustrating setbacks for a Washington club that continues to show pluck in battling to the final out but all too often can’t do quite enough to win more games.

“We battled hard today,” Acta said. “When we play a team of that category, we have to play perfect baseball.”

The Nationals didn’t play a perfect game Wednesday and as such lost their second straight to the American League East leaders, who again had a huge contingent of fans cheering their every move in a visiting ballpark.

Washington (20-49) did try its best to rally from a 6-1 deficit. Josh Willingham drove in a pair of runs with a sixth-inning single, and Cristian Guzman added an RBI triple in the seventh to cut Boston’s lead to two.

But the Nationals couldn’t finish the deal. Ryan Zimmerman’s deep drive to left-center in the seventh was snagged at the wall by Jacoby Ellsbury - “I thought it had a chance,” Zimmerman said - and Red Sox lefty Hideki Okajima pitched his way out of a tense jam in the eighth to preserve his team’s lead.

Acta played every card available to him during that last failed rally, summoning slugger Adam Dunn (who had a rare day off) from the bench to face Okajima with one on and two out in the eighth.

You have to take your shot there,” Acta said, “or it might never come around again.”

Dunn, though, drew a walk, leaving the rally in the hands of fellow pinch hitter Ronnie Belliard, who fouled off four straight offerings from Okajima before flailing at a 1-2 curveball down in the zone to end the inning.

“We’re not going to quit,” Willingham said. “We got down 6-1, and we put some good at-bats together and got some runs and got back in the game. We had a chance to come back and win.”

Ultimately, the deficit created by Stammen proved too great to overcome. And that deficit was so great in large part because of Ortiz’s towering, three-run homer.

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