- The Washington Times - Friday, July 8, 2011

For the second straight night, the Washington Nationals got off to a promising start, setting themselves up for victory by scoring early. Unlike in Thursday’s meltdown, their pitching staff kept the opponent at bay throughout the game Friday.

But the team’s season-long offensive woes resurfaced quickly, and an injury that forced starter John Lannan out of the game in the fourth inning seemed to take the life out of the Nationals, as they dropped to .500 with a 3-2 loss to Colorado.

Washington jumped on Rockies starter Jason Hammel in the first but failed to capitalize on an opportunity for a big inning. Roger Bernardina led off with a double, and Danny Espinosa followed with a four-pitch walk. After Ryan Zimmerman reached on an infield single to load the bases, Michael Morse hit a sacrifice fly to center to put the Nationals on the board.

“We’ve been jumping out of the gate real quick the last three ballgames,” manager Davey Johnson said. “Shoot, I thought we had something working there.

But Jayson Werth struck out and Rick Ankiel popped up to third, stranding two runners and putting an end to the Nationals’ only offensive threat of the night. Washington would not put another runner in scoring position for the rest of the game.

Lannan retired the first 10 batters he faced before running into trouble. With one out in the fourth inning, he allowed three consecutive singles. The third, off the bat of Ty Wigginton, hit Lannan in the face, forcing him to leave the game. He was diagnosed with a nasal contusion, and he is listed as day-to-day.

Ryan Mattheus came in to relieve Lannan and immediately got Mark Ellis to ground into a fielder’s choice to put runners on first and third. Mattheus balked home the Rockies’ second run, and Cole Garner brought Ellis home with his first major league hit, a single to left. Garner got caught in a rundown after trying to stretch the hit to a double, but the Rockies had a 3-1 lead.

“Those are my worst nightmares — the pitcher going early and didn’t have long relief, but the bullpen was outstanding,” Davey Johnson said. “It kept us in the ballgame, and we had a chance to win.”

Washington would narrow the deficit to one run in the fourth, when Wilson Ramos hit his eighth homer of the season on a first-pitch fastball.

“I was waiting for one pitch around the zone,” Ramos said. “In my first at-bat, he threw me only two pitches. I saw two fastballs and one curveball. I said to myself, if he threw me the same fastball in the second at-bat, I would swing. He threw me that pitch, and I swung pretty good.”

Mattheus retired the side in order in the fifth, and Sean Burnett followed with two scoreless innings. All-Star Tyler Clippard struggled with his command, walking two hitters in the ninth, but pitched the final two innings without giving up a hit.

“I had some pitchers for tomorrow, but I had nothing for today, and he did a great job,” Johnson said. “I asked Clippard to do a lot, and he did outstanding.

The Nationals seemed poised for a comeback in the ninth, when Morse led off with a single that dropped just beyond the reach of a diving Carlos Gonzalez. But the Rockies turned a double play, striking out Werth and throwing out pinch-runner Brian Bixler at second when he attempted to advance on a wild pitch. Ankiel struck out on three pitches to end the game.

“I put some speed on and I was hoping for a gapper or something so we could score and go on to win the ballgame, but it didn’t happen and I got a little aggressive,” Johnson said.

For the Nationals, close games have become the norm, as the team’s last 10 wins have come either by one run or in extra innings. This time, though,  they were on the other side of a one-run deficit. 

“You don’t go out there down by one and just expect to win it,” Espinosa said. “You just go out there and continue to play and fight hard, get some guys on and have an opportunity to score some runs. But tonight didn’t go our way.”