- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2005

As delightful as everything was around RFK Stadium over the weekend, the Washington Nationals came into last night’s game against the Florida Marlins knowing they were facing perhaps their first real test of the season.

In more ways than one.

Not only were the Nationals confronting a difficult opponent in the National League East rival Florida Marlins, they also were facing their first difficult weeknight draw at RFK.

On both fronts, Washington came up short.

After a weekend of big wins and big crowds, the Nationals were stymied early by left-hander Dontrelle Willis, made some costly mistakes in the field and could not rally late in a 9-4 loss to the Marlins before a season-low crowd of 24,003.

Washington’s five-game winning streak is a thing of the past. So is the club’s perfect record at RFK, which had crowds in excess of 34,000 for each of the Nationals’ first three home games but was only slightly more than half-full last night.

“We’re getting great support so far,” said catcher Gary Bennett, who threw out three baserunners but committed two errors and was charged with a passed ball. “Unfortunately, tonight we didn’t give them a very good product.”

The Nationals knew this would be a challenging night, though the focus inside the clubhouse was more on the opponent than on the number of fans.

Before the game, manager Frank Robinson already was lamenting his club’s bad fortune in having to face Willis for the second time in 10 days.

His apprehension was understandable. Willis has been tormenting the franchise since he burst onto the scene in 2003, and he has been tormenting the entire National League from the moment the season started.

Entering the game, Willis had a 6-2 record and 2.36 ERA in eight career starts against the franchise. He also had not allowed a run in 18 innings, with back-to-back, complete-game shutouts against the Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies.

The dynamic lefty extended the scoreless streak to 24 innings with six more last night before he finally succumbed during a three-run seventh.

“I give him credit — he’s got good stuff,” Robinson said. “He’s a good pitcher. But why he dominates us I don’t know.”

It appeared obvious early on that the Nationals weren’t going to buck this trend against Willis, who allowed just two hits through the first six innings.

Bennett’s leadoff double in the third represented Washington’s only real scoring opportunity until the seventh, but even that quickly fell flat. Pitcher Tomo Ohka popped up a sacrifice bunt attempt, Brad Wilkerson flied out to center field and struggling Cristian Guzman — who is now getting personal instruction from former All-Star Barry Larkin — struck out looking.

The Nationals finally got to Willis (3-0) in the seventh, though by then they had put themselves in a 9-0 hole. Jose Vidro led off with a solo homer to left field, his third of the season, and Willis then surrendered three straight hits before departing.

“I don’t care if they are making a run at me or not. I didn’t want to come out of that game,” Willis said. “I want the ball. This is my day to pitch. I have four other days to rest and hang out. This is my day to throw.”

Ohka, meanwhile, labored from the start, even if the early results weren’t damaging. The right-hander put the Marlins’ leadoff man on base in five of his six innings. Though he allowed just six hits, he also walked five, giving him 11 in his last two starts and leaving his manager flummoxed.

“The first couple of pitches, I thought he was throwing batting practice. That’s what it looked like with the speed of his pitches,” Robinson said. “I just don’t know what it is. It seems like he is not there. He’s not as intense as you’d like to see him out there.”

Ohka (1-2) was bailed out early by some fine defense. Bennett, making only his second start in place of regular catcher Brian Schneider, gunned down speedsters Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo at second base a combined three times in the first three innings.

Bennett’s night was far from perfect, though. He committed a throwing error in the second, bobbled Willis’ sacrifice bunt in the fifth for another error, then allowed Willis to score on a passed ball. The Marlins wound up scoring two runs in the inning, setting the stage for the rest of the night. They added two more in the sixth off Ohka, then pounded reliever Joe Horgan for five runs and six hits in the seventh.

“We made mistakes,” Bennett said. “I made some big ones and basically shot us in the foot. Against a team like that, you can’t afford to make mistakes.”

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