- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO — The 8-6 final score might suggest the Washington Nationals were one big hit from beating the San Francisco Giants yesterday. And considering the Nationals brought the tying run to the plate in the ninth inning, that is technically true.

But Washington might not have found itself in such a precarious position, trying to complete a five-run rally in the game’s final inning, if not for the wayward performances of a couple of pitchers earlier in the afternoon.

As manager Frank Robinson put it, “We didn’t get the pitching we needed today.”

Not from starter Tony Armas Jr., whose miserable summer continued with 32/3 innings of labored work. And not from reliever Ryan Wagner, who was touched up for a pair of towering solo homers in the seventh, two runs that proved to be the difference between a Nationals shot at a sweep at AT&T; Park and a mere three-game series victory.

The trouble began with Armas. Staked to a 1-0 lead on the first of Alfonso Soriano’s two homers in the game, the right-hander immediately gave the run back in the first, then continued to struggle until he was yanked after uncorking a wild pitch with two outs in the fourth.

By then, Armas (7-7 with a 5.16 ERA) had surrendered six runs and eight hits, another disappointing outing for a pitcher who can’t seem to make the leap into reliable major league starter.

Over his last six outings, Armas is 1-4 with a 9.95 ERA. In four of those starts, he has failed to make it out of the fourth inning.

“I feel good with every pitch,” he said. “It seems like every pitch I throw, I don’t know, it’s like I don’t know what’s coming. I’m kind of frustrated.”

The Nationals are just as baffled by Armas’ failures. Plagued by shoulder injuries for much of the previous three seasons, he can no longer use poor health as an excuse for his poor performance.

Robinson isn’t sure how to fix him.

“How long has Tony Armas been pitching? If I could fix him, I wouldn’t be here,” the manager said. “Believe me, I’d be on some island with a nice drink in my hand and relaxing with my own private jet. When there was a Tony Armas around, I’d fly in and fix him and go back to my island.”

Armas’ rough afternoon put the Nationals in a 6-1 hole, but they eventually made a game of it. With Giants starter Jason Schmidt (six innings, 10 strikeouts) finally knocked out, Soriano clubbed his 34th homer of the season to cut the lead to 6-3.

It was Soriano’s second opposite-field shot of the day, a rare occurrence for a slugger who has been primarily a pull hitter since coming to Washington.

“I’m a little surprised I don’t have more homers to right field,” he said. “I think I’m a better hitter when I hit the ball to right field.”

Soriano’s second blast, though, was immediately wiped out when Moises Alou and Shea Hillenbrand each took Wagner deep in the seventh. The right-handed reliever, acquired in last month’s eight-player trade with the Cincinnati Reds and promoted from Class AAA New Orleans on Monday, has appeared in two games so far and already has surrendered five runs.

“I don’t know what his problem was,” Robinson said. “I’ve seen him for all of three innings maybe. How am I supposed to know? All I know is he threw two balls pretty far today.”

So Washington looked ready to hand the game over to the Giants and head off to San Diego for a much-needed day off. Until the San Francisco bullpen decided to make things interesting during a shaky ninth.

Brad Hennessey opened the inning, surrendering back-to-back singles to Soriano and Felipe Lopez and a run-scoring groundout to Ryan Zimmerman. And when Nick Johnson drilled a two-out, two-run homer to left-center, the lead had been cut to 8-6, and Giants manager Felipe Alou was forced to make the unpopular decision to signal for closer Armando Benitez.

A suddenly despised figure in this town after blowing three straight saves and publicly calling out his teammates, Benitez entered to a cascade of boos from the crowd of 38,283. He exited to even more catcalls after walking Austin Kearns to bring the tying run to the plate.

With the left-handed-hitting Ryan Church due up, Alou brought in his own lefty reliever — Mike Stanton, acquired from the Nationals less than a week ago — with a chance to earn his first save in three years. Robinson countered by sending Alex Escobar up to pinch-hit for Church, but the right-handed hitter fell behind 0-2 and then was called out on a 71 mph curveball that in the estimation of plate umpire Rob Drake caught the outside corner.

“I was surprised,” Escobar said. “It was a tough pitch to call a strike.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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