- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

CINCINNATI — This is how the Washington Nationals bullpen is set up: Veteran Mike Stanton comes on as set-up man in the eighth inning before turning the game over to closer Chad Cordero in the ninth.

That formula has worked the few times it has been used this season until last night, when Stanton imploded. The left-hander walked two of the first three batters he faced, eventually loading the bases and allowing three runs on Scott Hatteberg’s double that gave the Cincinnati Reds a 9-6 victory at Great American Ball Park.

Stanton, who fell to 1-4 with a respectable 3.71 ERA, knows he can’t afford to let his teammates down in that situation, especially after the Nationals rallied to tie the game 6-6 in the top of the inning.

“It was just one of those innings when I couldn’t make the quality pitch when I needed to make the quality pitch,” Stanton said. “Obviously, it’s a big letdown for the team. The guys fought back, got us back even. To go out there and give it right back the very next half-inning is just unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, the Nationals have bigger pitching issues than Stanton’s blowing a game. Nominal ace Livan Hernandez has been nothing like the dominant workhorse he was last season, when he led the club in wins, starts, and innings and made the National League All-Star team.

It has been more than a month since Hernandez gained his only win of the season. Last night, he allowed five runs on nine hits and four walks in 51/3 innings.

Last season Hernandez put runners on base but found ways to work out of trouble. This season those runners are scoring although, according to manager Frank Robinson, Hernandez’s location and velocity are better last season.

“I can only go pitch, that’s the only way, there’s nothing else,” said Hernandez, whose only win of the season came April 8 at Houston. “I’m warming up perfect in the bullpen before the game.”

Robinson said Hernandez’s troubles are mental rather than involving his surgically repaired right knee.

“It’s up to him — he’s got to make some good pitches,” Robinson added.

Reds shortstop Felipe Lopez and right fielder Austin Kearns inflicted most of the damage. Kearns went 3-for-3 with two RBI and scored a run. Lopez went 2-for-2 with four stolen bases, two walks, and three runs scored.

In an attempt to win three straight games for the first time this season, the Nationals (12-22) came up short as the surprising Reds (22-12) maintained a half-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central.

Hernandez’s first-inning struggles continued. With the Nationals leading 2-0 thanks to Nick Johnson’s two-run homer, the Reds tied it on Adam Dunn’s 13th home run.

The Reds took a 3-2 lead in the inning when Kearns singled to right and scored on Brandon Phillips’ single over second that Jose Vidro knocked down at the edge of the outfield grass.

So far this season, Hernandez (1-4) has allowed 16 first-inning runs. Opponents are hitting .462 (18-for-39) with four home runs and three walks off him in that inning before last night.

The Nationals tied the game 3-3 in the second when Ryan Zimmerman led off with a double into the left-field corner, advanced to third on Brian Schneider’s opposite-field single to left and scored on a close play at the plate when Royce Clayton delivered a sacrifice fly to right field.

Hernandez then was involved in the game’s most bizarre play. With one out and Schneider at first, Hernandez failed to lay down a sacrifice with Schneider running on the pitch. Schneider easily stole second but home plate umpire Sam Holbrook ruled Hernandez had interfered with the catcher on his throw to second. Hernandez was called out, and Schneider was forced to go back to first.

The Reds took a 4-3 lead off Hernandez in their half of the second as Lopez walked, stole second and scored on Kearns’ single to left. Lopez, the NL’s stolen base leader with 15, set a career high with his four in this game. The Reds extended their lead to 5-3 in the fourth when Kearns singled to left to score Lopez.

The Nationals cut the deficit to 5-4 on Marlon Byrd’s second home run of the season, a solo shot off Aaron Harang in the fifth inning.

Nationals reliever Jason Bergmann allowed a Reds insurance run in the seventh when Phillips doubled off the out-of-town scoreboard on the left-field wall and scored on pinch hitter Ray Olmedo’s single to right to make it 6-4. The Nationals finally tied it 6-6 in the eighth on pinch hitter Matthew LeCroy’s RBI single to left.

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