- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

The Washington Nationals issued 11 walks Thursday night. They unleashed four wild pitches. They were charged with a passed ball, an error and a balk. They struck out 12 times. They constantly flirted with disaster and left the crowd of 18,007 at times either booing or gasping from exasperation.

And yet they somehow found themselves in position to win when the ninth inning began, which made the 9-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals all the more difficult to swallow.

The Nationals’ 16th loss in 21 games this season featured a wild yet effective performance from starter Daniel Cabrera, a couple of timely hits that gave the home team the lead after six innings and ultimately another implosive effort from a beleaguered bullpen that has come to symbolize Washington’s struggles.

The Cardinals rallied to score six times off Washington relievers, tying the score in the seventh off Mike Hinckley and Logan Kensing and then winning in the ninth with a five-run rally against pseudo-closer Julian Tavarez.

The common thread? An inability by Washington pitchers to throw strikes.

“They’re just walking themselves into trouble, over and over and over and over and over,” a clearly agitated Manny Acta said. “Walking guys after 0-2 counts. Walking guys in the bottom of the order. I don’t know why.

“You shouldn’t be afraid. You’re pitching for a last-place team in a half-empty stadium. What can be intimidating right now?”

The setting may not be intimidating, but Nationals pitchers are performing as if the crowd is going to assault them every time they commit even the slightest infraction. Take a look at Thursday’s game, in which the bullpen was handed a 4-3 lead in the seventh and proceeded to hand it back and then some.

Hinckley opened in the seventh by issuing a one-out walk to Ryan Ludwick, prompting Acta to summon Kensing for his first appearance since his acquisition from Florida on Wednesday. Kensing promptly gave up a single to Albert Pujols, walked Chris Duncan on four pitches and then surrendered a sacrifice fly to Rick Ankiel that tied the score.

That paled in comparison with a ninth-inning fiasco in which Tavarez (0-2) retired the first man he faced, then went walk-double-walk-hit batter-infield single.

“In those kind of situations, you don’t want to put the ball right in the middle of the plate,” Tavarez said. “On one swing, they can take the game away from you. That late in the game, one run can be the game. So you just want to be careful around the plate.”

Throw in an error on catcher Jesus Flores and a run-scoring balk by demoted closer Joel Hanrahan before he threw a pitch, and the end result was as calamitous an inning as the Nationals have endured this season.

“It’s embarrassing,” Acta said. “This is not Philadelphia, where a guy might be scared of throwing a pitch over the plate and a guy will hit it out. This is a pretty fair ballpark.”

That Washington was in position to win its second straight game was remarkable considering the way Cabrera flirted with disaster from his first pitch. The right-hander’s final line - six innings, three runs, four hits - looked pedestrian. His path to get there was anything but.

Cabrera was all over the place from the get-go. Only nine of his 22 pitches in the first inning were strikes. Two were wild pitches. One of those sailed behind Pujols’ back. Pujols responded four pitches later by blasting a 91-mph fastball into the left-field bullpen for a two-run homer.

The adventures continued for Cabrera. He walked five batters. He uncorked four wild pitches, the most by any Nationals pitcher in a game. He allowed Pujols to get such a big jump on a stolen base that the lumbering Cardinals slugger was coasting into second by the time Cabrera released the ball.

“For some reason, they don’t want to throw the ball over the plate,” pitching coach Randy St. Claire said of his staff. “Whether it’s being too fine, whether it’s not being aggressive enough, only they can answer those questions. But you can’t put guys on base.”

Or else what? At this point, the Nationals are running out of alternatives.

“Plan Z, maybe?” Acta said. “You just have to keep throwing them out there, continue to move them around until something clicks.”

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