- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

BOSTON — The offense is lagging a bit, missing one of its best hitters. The bullpen has been stretched thin, pressed into far more service than it should have been.

So, as Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson says: “If our starting pitchers don’t go deep into games, we’re in trouble.”

And when the man on the mound for the Nationals fails to hold up his end of the bargain like veteran Tony Armas Jr. did last night, the results are predictable. Despite taking an early lead at Fenway Park, Washington gave it all back and more in a 6-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox that felt like a missed opportunity.

Riding high after back-to-back comeback wins over the New York Yankees, the Nationals (32-40) opened a nine-game road trip on the wrong note. Armas lasted just 32/3 innings, the offense couldn’t take advantage of unaccomplished Red Sox starter Kyle Snyder and the bullpen couldn’t keep it close in the late innings.

“It’s all about starting pitching,” said reliever Mike Stanton, who has been dealing with left knee pain for the past few days. “This team’s going to go as far as our starting pitching takes us.”

Which is why this loss begins with Armas (6-4), who has failed to make it out of the fourth inning in each of his last two starts. And each time, the right-hander’s pitch count has exceeded 80, a massive total for such a short outing.

“He threw a lot of balls, and was not getting ahead of hitters and was not getting deep into the game,” Robinson said. “So I am concerned about him.”

The domino effect is significant. A Washington bullpen that was already overtaxed has now been pushed to the limit, forced to add another reliever to help absorb the punishment. Following the game, the club recalled right-hander Jason Bergmann from Class AAA New Orleans, giving the bullpen seven pitchers for the first time in 17 days.

The casualty was infielder Brendan Harris, who was optioned back to New Orleans despite impressing Robinson with his work in two brief stints in the majors.

“We need a pitcher,” Robinson said. “We need another arm in the bullpen.”

Of course, the Nationals’ offense could come to the rescue with a little more frequency. That group, though, couldn’t push a single run across over the final six innings last night after scoring three early runs against Snyder, whom the Red Sox claimed off waivers from the lowly Kansas City Royals last week.

Not that opportunities didn’t abound. Washington had men on first and second with one out in the sixth, but rookie Ryan Zimmerman (the hero of Sunday’s walk-off win at RFK Stadium) bounced into a 6-4-3 double play on the first pitch he saw from reliever Jermaine Van Buren to kill the rally.

The Nationals again threatened in the eighth, getting a leadoff single from pinch-hitter Marlon Anderson. But Alfonso Soriano grounded into a fielder’s choice, and Red Sox set-up man Rudy Seanez struck out both Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen.

“We score [three runs in the first three innings], and then we get shut down for six,” Robinson said. “You’re not going to win too many ballgames doing that.”

It was a feeble offensive ending to a night that began with much promise.

Facing Snyder, the Nationals set out to take an early lead. They did just that, getting a first-inning home run from Vidro (his first homer since May 25 and his first extra-base hit in two weeks), an RBI single from Brian Schneider in the second and a towering solo homer from Guillen in the third that careened off the giant Coke bottle high above the Green Monster.

Those three runs weren’t enough for Armas, though. Five days after serving up seven runs in three-plus innings, the right-hander again couldn’t make it out of the fourth. He gave up a pair of runs on four hits in the second, then allowed two more in the fourth on a pair of doubles off the left-field wall by Gabe Kapler and Mark Loretta.

The Loretta hit, which nearly cleared the fence, was enough for Robinson. He pulled Armas right then, preferring to go with untested rookie Saul Rivera against All-Star David Ortiz. That move nearly backfired when Ortiz crushed a single up the middle. But center fielder Marlon Byrd made a pinpoint throw to the plate to nail Loretta, who surprisingly didn’t slide.

Still, the Nationals trailed 4-3, and Armas was took the loss, continuing his recent downward trend. He hasn’t won in his last three starts, and during that time, he’s seen his ERA rise from 3.34 to 4.44.

“I don’t know if I’m not making my pitches, if I’m not locating my pitches, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not concerned, but I’m not feeling good right now.”

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