- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

Perhaps yesterday’s 10-9 loss to the San Diego Padres served as the best illustration of what the Washington Nationals have gone through in the first half of the season.

The Nationals blew most of a six-run lead in the sixth, scored two runs in the eighth for a three-run advantage, then lost on pinch-hitter Mike Piazza’s home run — a solo shot off Nationals closer Chad Cordero — in the ninth inning as San Diego completed a sweep in front of 22,000 at RFK Stadium.

The Nationals stumbled into the All-Star break with a three-game losing streak, closing out the first half at 38-52 and their 10-game homestand at 5-5. Last season, the Nationals were 52-36 and in first place at the break.

“This was a very difficult loss, even if we weren’t going into the All-Star break,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “It’s a ballgame we had won a couple of times — a type of ballgame we have to win. We didn’t get the job done today in a lot of ways. It wasn’t just the pitching. Defensively, we did some things out there to help them and hurt ourselves. If we had been playing good defense today, we’d have won the ballgame.”

Robinson is talking about the Padres’ back-to-back doubles to lead off the ninth, both misplayed by Nationals center fielder Alex Escobar. The 27-year-old was more impressive at the plate, going 4-for-4 with a three-run homer and a double.

Josh Bard hit the first double, and Adrian Gonzalez hit the next, scoring Bard to cut the Nationals’ lead to 9-7.

“Besides the ball being hit pretty good, I got a late jump on it,” Escobar said of the second double. “The second one I thought was the toughest one. The first one was clear that it went over my head. The second one, I had a shot but couldn’t get there before the ball. They were two balls that were pretty well hit, and at that time of the game, late in the afternoon, it’s pretty tough. The sun gets right in the middle, and it’s tough to pick up the ball.”

After the doubles, Padres shortstop Khalil Greene tied the game with a two-run homer, his 12th of the season. Piazza, who was pinch-hitting for reliever Scott Cassidy, hit his 12th of the season, which turned out to be the game-winner.

Cordero (5-4), who gave up one run in the eighth, was being called upon for a two-inning save. But he threw a career-high 55 pitches, was lifted after 12/3 innings and blew his third save opportunity in 17 chances. Last season, Cordero had 31 saves at the All-Star break.

“It wasn’t a pitch count. I made mistakes, and they made me pay for it,” said Cordero, who allowed five runs on six hits. “It was one of those games where if I made a mistake they were going to hit it hard somewhere.”

The Nationals’ bullpen had a 23-inning scoreless streak until the sixth inning, when San Diego (48-40) scored four runs. Robinson was forced to go to his bullpen early, when he pulled starter John Patterson after just one inning because of an injury.

Rookie left-hander Bill Bray and long-man Jon Rauch combined for 41/3 innings of solid relief, allowing one run on four hits. But right-hander Gary Majewksi gave up three runs in just a third of an inning in the sixth.

Nick Johnson gave the Nationals a 3-1 lead in the first with a home run, his 14th of the seaon, off Padres starter Clay Hensley. Washington stretched the lead to 7-1 the fifth on rookie Ryan Zimmerman’s RBI double and Escobar’s three-run homer — his first big-league homer since May 23, 2004, when he was with the Cleveland Indians.

Catcher Brian Schneider hit a two-run homer in the eighth to give the Nationals a 9-6 lead going into the ninth.

“I’m not going to sit here and sulk over the loss because I understand how tired our bullpen is,” Schneider said. “They’re out there doing their best. You’ve got the closer throwing 50 pitches and working as hard as he can, and you can’t expect him to be sharp with his stuff.”

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

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