- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 6, 2006

SAN DIEGO — As one of the few proven veterans on the Washington Nationals’ makeshift pitching staff, Pedro Astacio is afforded perhaps a longer leash by manager Frank Robinson than most others.

At 36, Astacio has established himself as a reliable starter, particularly now that he has shown he’s healthy. So Robinson didn’t hesitate to send the right-hander back out to the mound last night for the seventh inning of a tie game with the San Diego Padres, hoping the hurler could record three more outs before turning things over to the bullpen.

Astacio got two outs. He couldn’t get the third, and because of it, the Nationals couldn’t pull out a second-straight win over the National League West leaders.

The Padres emerged victorious, 6-3, thanks to Mike Cameron’s RBI double in the seventh on the 106th and last pitch of the game by Astacio. Mike Piazza’s subsequent run-scoring single off reliever Saul Rivera (plus Brian Giles’ RBI single off Roy Corcoran an inning later) gave San Diego some extra cushion, and the Padres bullpen closed out Washington’s lineup the rest of the way to send the Petco Park crowd of 40,339 home happy.

The Nationals weren’t nearly as ecstatic after losing an eminently winnable ballgame and ensuring a losing record on a nine-game road trip that concludes today.

Washington (49-61) had its chances, particularly in the eighth, when Alfonso Soriano singled and Ryan Zimmerman walked to set up a golden scoring opportunity. But setup man Scott Linebrink struck out both Felipe Lopez and Nick Johnson swinging, Johnson on a 94-mph high heater.

That failed rally was in stark contrast to the Padres’ two-run seventh against Astacio (2-2), a rally kick-started by Dave Roberts, who drew a one-out walk. Giles followed with a hard lineout to right, bringing Cameron to the plate in a clutch situation to face Astacio, who was about to surpass his highest pitch total of the season.

Robinson, though, left his starter in to face one more batter. Cameron drilled a double to center, scoring Roberts easily and driving Astacio from the game. Rivera came on in relief and immediately gave up a run-scoring single to Piazza, all but sealing the Nationals’ fate.

It didn’t help that Washington needed a while to get going in this one, failing to put a single man on base until the fourth.

The Nationals have a habit of turning relatively unknown pitchers into the second coming of Roger Clemens, so they should have known they were going to be in for a rough night against Padres starter Mike Thompson.

Washington had never faced the rookie right-hander before and had little reason to know much about him coming into the game. Thompson had been utterly nondescript in his previous 11 starts, posting a 3-3 record and 4.34 ERA, but he looked ready to make a name for himself as soon as the Nationals stepped into the box.

Thompson retired the first 11 men he faced with ease, perhaps causing some in the ballpark to ask when a Padre last threw a no-hitter (answer: never). But it figured to be only a matter of time before Washington finally got to him, and sure enough, Zimmerman did the trick with two outs in the fourth.

Boy, did Zimmerman do it. He crushed a 1-0 pitch from Thompson into the bullpen beyond the deep left-center field fence for a solo homer, a shot perhaps even more impressive than the second-deck homer Zimmerman hit on Friday night.

Last night’s blast gave the 21-year-old 15 for the season, tied for fourth-most among major league rookies. His 75 RBI top the list.

Not to be outdone by his much-younger teammate, Marlon Anderson decided to get into the act an inning later, belting a two-run homer to right that tied the game 3-3 and turned Thompson’s brief flirtation with history into a mere quality start.

His counterpart, Astacio, enjoyed similar success despite taking a far different path to get there.

Astacio ran into all kinds of trouble early on, serving up a two-run triple to Adrian Gonzalez in the first before somehow managing to escape without surrendering another run.

The veteran right-hander again got into trouble in the third, though it wasn’t entirely his fault. Giles led off with a drive to the base of the wall in right. Austin Kearns raced back and jumped to try to make the catch but couldn’t haul it in, so Giles was awarded with a double. Cameron followed with a single, and Piazza drove a sacrifice fly to score Giles and give San Diego a 3-0 lead.

But Astacio found his groove after that and kept the Padres from scoring again through his next three innings, giving the Nationals a chance to come back and make a game of it before he finally faltered in the seventh.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

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