Bullpen meltdown dooms Nats

LOS ANGELES — For five innings Wednesday night, the Washington Nationals flirted with disaster yet somehow kept emerging intact and in position to beat a quality opponent on the road.

The crowd of 31,348 at Dodger Stadium, though, knew it was only a matter of time before the Nationals would be done in by their mistakes and before the hometown Los Angeles Dodgers would swat away these pesky visitors and win yet another ballgame in their famed ballpark.

Sure enough, the tide finally turned in a sixth inning that was as ugly as anything the Nationals have seen this season. And given some of the ugly innings Washington has already been a part of this season, that was really saying something.

This latest meltdown — a seven-run sixth inning that featured three pitchers, four walks and one wild offering from Mike Hinckley that hit the backstop on the fly — turned a tight ballgame into a 10-3 loss that got this West Coast trip off on a decidedly sour note.

We just completely crumbled in that inning, manager Manny Acta said.

Truth be told, everyone probably should have seen this coming. Los Angeles has been unstoppable at Chavez Ravine, having now set a major-league record by winning its first 13 home games of the season. Washington, meanwhile, is 2-11 on the road.

The outcome might as well have been etched in stone before the first pitch was thrown under a glorious Southern California sunset at 7:11 p.m. PDT. The Nationals simply had no answer for the majors hottest team, though they gave it a hearty try for five innings despite some shaky moments that seemed to foretell what was to come.

Enigmatic starter Daniel Cabrera was up to his usual tricks on the mound, which is to say he was all over the strike zone and routinely putting himself in harms way. Yet the right-hander took the mound for the sixth having allowed only two runs (one earned) while stranding seven runners on base.

I had a lot of people on base the whole game, he said. It was tough. But I kept making good pitches and got a couple of groundball double plays and got out of the innings.

After recording one out in the sixth, Cabreras ERA stood at a remarkable 3.94, remarkable in that it did not in any way accurately reflect his true performance through the seasons first month yet was lower than every other member of the Washington rotation.

But all good things must come to an end sometime, and so it was that Cabrera (0-3) departed four batters into the sixth after issuing his fourth and fifth walks of the evening and leaving the bases loaded for the Nationals bullpen.

That group, as has so often been the case, was not up to the challenge. Hinckley proceeded to serve up an RBI single to Rafael Furcal, then walked in a run with a 3-2 fastball to Orlando Hudson that hit the backstop on the fly and is sure to become a mainstay in baseball blooper videos.

As I went to go back, I felt the ball come out of my hand, the left-hander said. I mean, I had no grip on it. Its just one of those feelings like when youre going down really fast in an elevator and you feel your stomach go out from underneath you. Its like that feeling. I had no idea where this balls going to go. To be quite honest, I just lost it.

That was as much as Acta could take of Hinckley, who has now put 20 men on base in 9 2/3 innings this year, but his choice of replacements was no more effective. Logan Kensing, the recently acquired right-hander, entered with the bases loaded and Manny Ramirez striking an imposing figure at the plate. Three batters later, Kensing had been tagged for a two-run double and a two-run single as the rout ensued.

Thus, the latest Washington bullpen implosion was in the books and the seven members of this struggling unit were left to try to explain what went wrong.

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