- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005

They trailed much of the afternoon, fought back to tie the game in the seventh, then handed it over to their unflappable bullpen to finish things off. This was the kind of game fans at RFK Stadium have come to expect the Washington Nationals to win.

Which made the Nationals’ collapse yesterday a little difficult to stomach.

“We had momentum going there, and then we go and give it right back to them,” manager Frank Robinson said after Washington’s 9-5 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. “That was the one that was kind of devastating, tough to take.”

The Nationals (44-31) have made such a habit of pulling out these close ballgames — not to mention winning every time they set foot inside RFK — that many in the crowd of 33,557 didn’t know how to react to this surprising downturn of events.

A loss? At home? Is that possible?

Indeed it was. For the first time in 13 games at RFK, the Nationals were forced to watch another team dole out high-fives in the middle of the infield. In the process, they saw their lead over the Atlanta Braves (victorious for the third straight day over the Baltimore Orioles) slip to three games.

All because of some late-game fireworks provided not by the home club but by the visitors for a change.

When Vinny Castilla doubled in two runs in the seventh to tie the game 5-5, the Nationals and their fans had every reason to believe they were in the driver’s seat.

It didn’t take long for the car to go skidding off the highway.

Toronto’s Eric Hinske led off the eighth by doubling off Nationals reliever Luis Ayala. Two batters later, Ayala misfired on an 0-1 slider to Orlando Hudson and watched as the Blue Jays’ No.8 hitter belted it to right-center for his second homer of the day.

“I missed a couple of pitches, and I paid the price for it,” Ayala said.

Though he has been one of the most reliable members of Robinson’s all-right-handed bullpen this season, Ayala (6-4) hasn’t been so reliable against left-handers. Both of the hits he surrendered yesterday came against lefties, who are now batting .344 (31-for-90) against him. By contrast, Ayala is holding right-handed hitters to a .214 (18-for-84) average.

“I trust him, and he’ll do the job for me more often than not,” Robinson said. “All those guys out there sooner or later are going to have to face left-handed hitters because I have no other choice.”

Still trailing by only two runs, the Nationals might have mounted one last comeback. But the Blue Jays added two more runs in the ninth off Sun-Woo Kim, and Washington’s hitters went down quietly, failing to put a man on against closer Miguel Batista (14th save) over the final two innings.

By then, the Nationals were a lifeless bunch. They had endured a 3-hour, 42-minute marathon on a hot, summer afternoon — “It feels like we played a doubleheader,” Robinson said — and they watched cleanup hitter Nick Johnson hobble off the field with what was diagnosed as a bruised heel but could prove to be more severe.

Johnson, Washington’s most consistent hitter over the last month, hurt himself trying to avoid catcher Gregg Zaun as he crossed the plate with the tying run in the seventh. Choosing neither to slide nor to run over Zaun, Johnson appeared to plant his right foot awkwardly and immediately started writhing in pain.

He walked gingerly off the field and left to undergo X-rays and an MRI to determine whether there was any more damage. His status for tomorrow’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates is uncertain.

“That’s why you should never as a runner avoid knocking [opposing catchers] on their butts,” Robinson said. “Because there is a good possibility that you’re going to get hurt.”

The Johnson run might not have been as crucial had the Nationals held on to an early 2-1 lead that was made possible by a Junior Spivey solo homer and Jose Guillen’s aggressive baserunning when he scored on Johnson’s high-hopper to second.

But Washington starter Tony Armas Jr. gave the lead back, and then some, during a disastrous fifth inning. After cruising to that point, allowing only an unearned run and retiring 12 straight batters, Armas served up Hudson’s first homer of the day on an 0-2 high fastball.

After that? “He just lost focus and concentration,” Robinson said.

Armas proceeded to walk two batters, allow a single to another, then a two-run double to Shea Hillenbrand that ended his afternoon. One more run was charged to Armas when reliever Hector Carrasco uncorked a wild pitch, making for an ugly final pitching line: 42/3 innings, three hits, five runs (four earned), three walks, a hit batter and a home run.

“I can’t explain it,” said Armas, whose ERA now stands at 5.44. “I let my team down. I’ve got to do a better job.”

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