- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 8, 2006

For those few seconds when the ball jumped off Ramon Ortiz’s bat and headed down the left-field line, Frank Robinson looked brilliant. The Washington Nationals manager’s surprising decision to let his pitcher hit with the bases loaded and his team trailing by three runs in the fifth was about to pay off.

But Ortiz’s liner on the first pitch he saw from San Diego Padres veteran Woody Williams landed on the wrong side of the chalk, perhaps two or three inches from being a bases-clearing double.

Instead, it was nothing more than a foul ball. And when Ortiz returned to the plate and struck out and Alfonso Soriano followed with a fly out, the Nationals’ best opportunity of the night was squandered, ultimately leading to a 3-2 loss before 25,161 at RFK Stadium.

“They say it’s a game of inches,” shortstop Royce Clayton said, “and that represented itself tonight.”

The Nationals seemed to keep coming up short on a number of occasions against a hot San Diego squad that has taken over first place in the wide-open National League West, and as a result wasted Ortiz’s gutsy 122-pitch effort.

A win last night would have moved Washington (38-50) within a half-game of second place in the NL East, still way behind the division-leading New York Mets but at least a mildly encouraging position to be in heading into the All-Star break.

The home team will have to give it another try tonight, because after a wild four-game series against the Florida Marlins, there was precious little drama at the ballpark last night outside of the failed fifth-inning rally.

If Robinson had his way, Ortiz (a career .067 hitter) never would have had to go to the plate in that situation, with his team down 3-0. He would have sent up a veteran pinch-hitter like Daryle Ward or Marlon Anderson instead.

But the decision wasn’t so cut-and-dry. After his bullpen was forced to throw a combined 17-1/3 innings the previous two days, Robinson desperately needed Ortiz (6-7) to go deep into last night’s game. Five innings just wasn’t going to be enough, so the manager made the unpopular decision to let his pitcher hit, even if it left some among the crowd booing.

“If I had the full team, the full bullpen, there’s no hesitation,” Robinson said. “You have to make the decision [based on] the personnel you have available to you. I couldn’t do it there, at that time of the game, with what I had out there.”

Even so, Ortiz nearly came through in most-dramatic fashion. He sent Williams’ first pitch down the left-field line, turning all those boos into a brief cheer. But the ball kept hooking and wound up just foul, preventing at least two runs from scoring.

“It was very close,” Ortiz said. “But it didn’t happen. There’s nothing you can do right now.”

Ortiz, who had raced all the way down the first-base line, retreated to the batters’ box, took the next pitch for a strike and then swung and missed at Williams’ third offering. Soriano followed with a lazy fly ball, and that was the end of that rally, which for all anyone knew could have been the Nationals’ last shot.

“That’s a good chance you missed out on,” Robinson said. “You don’t ever think it’s going to be your last chance, but we missed out on a good shot there.”

Washington did get another chance the following inning and even managed to score two runs thanks to Jose Guillen’s bloop single and Alex Escobar’s run-scoring fielder’s choice. But with the tying run on third and two out, Padres reliever Cla Meredith struck out Damian Jackson on three pitches, quashing yet another potential rally.

“It hurt, but you still have to go out and try to put runs on the board,” Jackson said. “You’ve got nine innings, the game is not over. You just try your hardest.”

But the Nationals never had another legitimate shot. They went quietly in the seventh and eighth, then were shut down in succession in the ninth by veteran closer Trevor Hoffman, who recorded the 459th save of his brilliant career.

By the end of this one, Washington’s players could only sit back and ponder what might have been had a line drive by the starting pitcher just landed a few more inches to the right.

“Ramon tries hard, but he’s not Babe Ruth by any means,” Clayton said. “He hit that ball and it just happened to go foul by a couple of inches, and that was kind of tough. He pitched his heart out. He pitched well, we just couldn’t get anything going.”

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

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