- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

HOUSTON — On most nights, four runs should be enough for the Washington Nationals. Especially with their ace on the mound.

Of course, that assumes the Nationals aren’t playing in one of the smallest ballparks in baseball. And that Livan Hernandez isn’t going to give up seven runs.

Never assume anything with this team.

Despite an early barrage of hits and a spirited ninth-inning rally, Washington could not overcome one of Hernandez’s worst outings of the year and wound up on the wrong end of a 7-6 loss to the Houston Astros last night.

With the victory before 34,309 at Minute Maid Park, the Astros re-established their two-game lead over the Nationals in the race for the National League wild card. Washington will need to beat veteran left-hander Andy Pettitte tonight to avoid falling three games back.

That’s only going to happen if the Nationals (59-54) get a far more sustained attack in the series finale. Or better yet, a far more effective performance from their starting pitcher.

Manager Frank Robinson got neither last night from his club, which scored four runs in the game’s first four innings but then was shut out until the ninth. That wasn’t nearly enough run support for Hernandez, who was tagged for seven runs (five earned) on 10 hits over six labored innings.

It marked the third straight start in which Hernandez (13-5) has surrendered double-digit hits. It was the first time he had allowed seven runs since Opening Day.

“I’m trying to figure out what it is,” Robinson said. “It’s not like him.”

The final two runs were perhaps the most frustrating. Hernandez put himself in a bases-loaded jam in the sixth after booting Chris Burke’s sacrifice attempt and intentionally walking Lance Berkman to pitch to Morgan Ensberg. The move backfired as Ensberg doubled to right-center, scoring two and turning a one-run ballgame into a three-run deficit that proved too large to overcome.

“I had a good day with Ensberg, and I wanted to face him,” Hernandez said. “He hit a good ball inside, and he hit it in the gap.”

The Nationals tried to stage a late rally and nearly pulled it off. They scored twice off Astros closer Brad Lidge in the ninth and put the tying run on third base. But ailing Jose Guillen, pinch-hitting for Preston Wilson and making his first appearance since Friday, struck out to end the game.

“That’s a no-brainer, gentlemen,” Robinson said of the decision to hit for Wilson, who is 0-for-6 in this series.

After a season spent at spacious, pitcher-friendly RFK Stadium, the Nationals’ mouths have to be watering every time they step to the plate at Minute Maid Park. There’s no such thing as long fly balls in this launching pad — they’re all home runs.

Unfortunately, the home team knows this as well, so you better be ready for a slugfest when you walk through the tunnel.

The two combatants wasted no time getting into the act last night. Nationals second baseman Jose Vidro, the second batter, crushed a 3-2 pitch from rookie Wandy Rodriguez toward the train tracks high above the left-field fence to give Washington a 1-0 advantage.

Hernandez, though, gave the run right back, and added three more for good measure during a disastrous bottom of the first. The Nationals ace retired just two of the first eight Astros. Mike Lamb’s broken-bat single with the bases loaded brought home Houston’s first run. Orlando Palmeiro’s double to right brought home three more.

“I had a bad first inning, and that was the ballgame,” Hernandez said of his 36-pitch inning. “The last two games, they’ve scored runs in the first inning. Sometimes that happens.”

Hernandez’s only hope to get the Nationals back in the game was not with his arm, but with his bat. The big right-hander has always had some skills at the plate — he owns a career .236 average, five three-hit games and a four-hit game. So this three-hit showing was nothing new for him.

In the second, he laced a double down the left-field line to drive in a run. In the fourth, he turned on a 3-1 fastball from Rodriguez (7-5) and deposited it in the left-field bleachers for his seventh career home run (second this year).

A sixth-inning single made Hernandez 3-for-3 and a triple shy of the cycle, but it didn’t make up for the Nationals’ inability to deliver in the clutch. Despite five baserunners in the fifth and sixth innings alone, Washington failed to score because of two double plays.

The first (and most egregious) came on Brad Wilkerson’s fly out to the warning track in left. Vinny Castilla, who had jogged casually from first to second on the play, suddenly realized he had to race back to the bag. By the time he made it, he had been doubled up to end the inning.

“Vinny’s responsibility is to bust his tail back to first base,” Robinson said. “As I said, [missed opportunities] come back to bite you in the end. You can’t make mistakes and squander opportunities.”

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