- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

As good as the Washington Nationals’ bullpen has been this season, it really only works when manager Frank Robinson can use his three best pitchers — Luis Ayala, Gary Majewski and Chad Cordero — in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, respectively.

When any of those right-handers is unavailable, as the overworked Cordero and Majewski were last night, Robinson’s bullpen suddenly loses a lot of its luster.

And its effectiveness.

An RFK Stadium crowd of 28,280 learned that the hard way last night. Despite six solid innings from starter Tony Armas Jr., the Nationals blew a two-run lead in the eighth and ultimately lost to the Atlanta Braves 5-4.

The culprits were Hector Carrasco and T.J. Tucker, Washington’s regular middle relievers who were thrust into setup duties and failed to hold the lead. Carrasco was charged with the loss after surrendering three runs in the fateful eighth with some help from Tucker, who allowed the actual game-winning hit.

Just like that, the Nationals’ fourth straight win and third straight over Atlanta was gone, as was their opportunity to move within a half-game of the Braves and Florida Marlins in the National League East.

“You don’t want it to happen,” left fielder Ryan Church said. “But, hey, [the relievers have] done their job all year long.”

On any other night, Washington (27-26) would have felt plenty comfortable taking a 4-2 lead into the eighth inning, especially when those four runs came off Atlanta ace John Smoltz. But with Cordero (who had pitched in four straight games) and Majewski (three straight) in need of a night off, Robinson was forced to save Ayala for the ninth and instead try to get two innings of setup work from Carrasco.

The veteran right-hander nearly pulled it off. He retired the first five batters he faced, but with two out in the eighth he surrendered an opposite-field double to Ryan Langerhans. Carrasco’s next pitch, a hanging slider to Wilson Betemit, was crushed to right field just beyond the reach of leaping Jose Guillen. Betemit’s two-run homer tied the game at 4-4 and wasted Armas’ strong performance.

“I wanted the pitch down more, but it stayed up,” Carrasco (1-1) said. “That’s the only bad pitch I threw.”

Carrasco followed up the homer by walking Julio Franco, and that brought Tucker out of the bullpen. He immediately permitted pinch-runner Pete Orr to steal second, then allowed him to score the eventual winning run on Marcus Giles’ single through the left side.

“Nobody can do it every night,” Robinson said. “We were pretty close. Carrasco was one pitch away from doing an excellent job for us.”

In the Nationals’ bullpen, Cordero and Majewski watched helplessly, knowing there was nothing they could do.

“Yeah, but it’s better to get rested now so I’ll be fresh later on,” said Cordero, who is on pace to appear in 75 games.

The blown lead cost the Nationals a rare victory over Smoltz (4-4). It’s one thing to hit Kyle Davies or Roman Colon, as Washington did the previous two nights. It’s quite another to hit Smoltz, who may have entered with only three wins this season but had pitched every bit as well as his 2.91 ERA would indicate.

The Nationals, though, took it to Smoltz during a three-run second with three doubles in a span of four batters. Nick Johnson led off with a hard shot to the gap in right-center, then scored on Church’s hard hopper just inside first base. Brian Schneider drove in Church with a line drive to right-center, then scored two batters later when Smoltz launched a wild pitch in the dirt.

Struggling shortstop Cristian Guzman provided the Nationals’ fourth run off Smoltz with a bloop single to center in the sixth, but that’s all Washington managed for the night. Right-hander Chris Reitsma came on to record the final six outs for his second save, getting Guzman to line out with two on in the eighth and pinch-hitter Wil Cordero to ground out to end the game.

Armas didn’t need much run support the way he was going. The right-hander was far from spectacular, but he made pitches when he needed to, just as he did two weeks ago against the Brewers in his only win to date.

He surrendered a solo homer to Johnny Estrada in the second and an RBI single to Adam LaRoche in the third but otherwise buckled down to record big outs, none bigger than his final two in the sixth.

Clinging to a 3-2 lead, Armas allowed the Braves’ first two men to reach on singles, then after a sacrifice intentionally walked Betemit to load the bases for Smoltz. Armas struck out Smoltz and followed by getting Giles to pop out to end the rally. The crowd gave Armas a standing ovation as he returned to the dugout.

“It wasn’t the pitch I wanted to make,” Armas said, “but it worked.”

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