- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Once upon a time, RFK Stadium was a safe haven for the Washington Nationals, a home this once-vagabond club couldn’t wait to return to after long road trips.

And for good reason. The Nationals were a major-league-best 29-10 at home through the first half of the season, making rickety old RFK one of the game’s most-imposing venues for opposing teams.

No more. With a 5-4 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers last night, RFK has officially become the Nationals’ new house of horrors.

Washington has lost nine of its last 12 games at the formerly friendly confines, a stretch that dates back nearly a month. The energy that this ballclub used to draw from raucous, bleacher-bouncing fans has wilted away in the searing D.C. summer.

“The energy is still around and we’re feeding off that,” manager Frank Robinson said. “We’re just not doing the things on the field during the course of a ballgame that we were doing earlier.”

That big, clutch hit that had become a staple around here is nowhere to be found, despite the Nationals’ best efforts to pull off rallies in both the eighth and ninth innings last night.

Shoot, even their rock-solid pitching staff was cursing a ballpark that had for months been a pitcher’s best friend after surrendering four home runs for the first time all year last night to the power-starved Dodgers.

“I was really surprised,” said starter Esteban Loaiza, who surrendered three of the four shots. “The ball hasn’t been flying as well when we play here. But today, it was a home-run [park] for them.”

Those four longballs ultimately doomed Washington (56-50) in its first game back from a dismal 1-5 road trip. The loss dropped the Nationals a season-worst 51/2 games back of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East and was their 11th straight one-run defeat.

Each one of those nip-and-tuck losses has come about in part because of Washington’s inability to do things such as advance a runner from second with no outs, hit a fly ball with a man on third or get down a sacrifice bunt.

That last fundamental has been a particular bone of contention lately, so when Loaiza (6-7) failed to do his job at the plate last night with two on and no one out in the third, the groans of frustration were audible. It was the third time in four games that a Washington pitcher struck out trying to lay down a bunt.

“Three?” Robinson said. “That’s not good.”

At least Brad Wilkerson was right there to pick Loaiza up. Moments after the botched bunt, Wilkerson drilled a pitch from Jeff Weaver (9-8) to deep left-center. It hit the warning track, bounced up against the wall and before the Dodgers could get the ball back in, Wilkerson had slid into third with a two-run triple.

But he never advanced the final 90 feet from there. Jose Vidro hit a shallow fly ball, and Jose Guillen popped up to end the inning.

“Less than two outs, runner on third … we needed to get that run in,” Wilkerson said. “We didn’t do it. And it always seems to come back to get us in the end.”

It certainly did, though it wasn’t the Nationals’ only blown scoring opportunity of the night.

In their most encouraging (and most disappointing) moment of the game, they managed to score twice in the eighth to get themselves within a run yet stranded the tying run on second when pinch-hitter Carlos Baerga grounded out to end the inning.

Then, with two outs in the ninth, Vidro narrowly stretched a base hit to left into a double, making a nifty slide to avoid getting tagged for the final out of the game. It didn’t matter: Guillen grounded out to closer Yhency Brazoban (21st save) to quash Washington’s last hope.

As it turned out, the Nationals’ four runs (a veritable explosion for this team) weren’t enough to overcome Loaiza’s unusual performance.

On the surface, the right-hander pitched an effective game. He allowed just five hits over seven innings and needed just 83 pitches to make it that far.

But three of those pitches were launched into the thick evening air for home runs. Jeff Kent led off the second inning by crushing Loaiza’s first-pitch fastball for his 20th homer, marking the ninth consecutive season in which he has reached that milestone (a major league record for second basemen).

Three innings later, No. 8 hitter Jason Repko took a 1-0 cutter from Loaiza deep, tying the game at 2.

The biggest blow came in the seventh. After Kent legged out a double on a blooper to left, Loaiza delivered a 3-1 cutter down and in to Jason Phillips and the Dodgers first baseman tattooed it over the left-field fence for a two-run bomb.

“Obviously, we weren’t trying to throw some of those pitches where they were,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “That was the thing tonight: When we missed our locations, they didn’t just get a single. They hit it out of the park.”

Loaiza wasn’t the only one victimized. Reliever Hector Carrasco surrendered a homer of his own, a solo shot by pinch-hitter Hee-Seop Choi.

Carrasco — and the rest of the Nationals — could only shake their heads in disbelief at the thought of giving up four home runs in their once-happy home park.

“When he hit that ball, I said, ‘It’s not going to get out of here,’ ” Carrasco said. “It kind of surprised me.”

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