- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2006

PHILADELPHIA — Tony Armas Jr. has, by all accounts, been the Washington Nationals’ best pitcher during this dreadful season.

Which isn’t to say he has established himself as the staff ace.

For all his ability and success so far this year, Armas remains a confounding figure on the mound, one who perpetually teases the Nationals but never seems to be able to get over the hump.

Never was that more evident than in last night’s 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, in which Armas tossed a gem before 23,805 at Citizens Bank Park.

Well, except for the towering, three-run homer he surrendered to Bobby Abreu in the fourth. And the bases-loaded walk he issued to opposing pitcher Brett Myers in the seventh, his final pitch of the evening.

OK, so Armas would have to have been perfect to outpitch Myers in this game. The Phillies’ best starter dominated the Nationals, carrying a two-hitter into the eighth before Marlon Byrd finally broke up the shutout with a two-run homer to left.

By then, though, Washington already trailed by four runs, and Armas (5-3) was to blame for that.

With the Nationals’ bullpen dangerously thin — Joey Eischen and Santiago Ramirez were sent home to undergo MRIs, Jon Rauch continues to be plagued by a stomach ailment and Gary Majewski was unavailable after pitching six of the last eight days — manager Frank Robinson needed an efficient outing from Armas.

That’s never a given with Armas, who despite his 3.44 ERA coming in had pitched into the seventh inning only twice this season. The right-hander did his part early on, though, setting the Phillies’ first nine batters down in order on just 38 pitches.

But Armas struggled in the fourth, when Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley lined singles up the middle, bringing Abreu to the plate. The Philadelphia slugger has had success against Armas in the past, entering the evening with a .308 average and two homers in 26 at-bats. And when Armas fell behind 3-1 in the count, the stage was set for homer No. 3.

“On those three hitters there, I kind of thought he started throwing the ball instead of pitching,” Robinson said.

Armas threw the pitch right where Abreu wanted it — belt-high, over the inside portion of the plate — and then jerked his neck around to watch the ball sail into the second deck in right field for a three-run homer.

“It was one pitch,” Armas said. “That’s part of the game.”

Armas didn’t allow another hit until stumbling again in the seventh — giving up a single, a walk and hitting a batter to load the bases for Myers, who fell behind in the count 1-2 before taking three straight balls.

“You’ve got to be able to throw the ball over the plate to the pitcher,” Robinson said. “Make him swing the bat.”

Said Armas: “I threw a good pitch, he just didn’t swing.”

Those were the only mistakes Armas made all night, but those were all it took to hand the Nationals their second straight loss to open this nine-game road trip.

Perhaps that’s because the Washington lineup was whitewashed by Myers (4-2), who continues to be the Phillies’ only reliable starter. The right-hander was in control all evening, allowing a first-inning single to Marlon Anderson, a fourth-inning single to Royce Clayton and not much else.

“When he’s on, he’s tough to hit,” said Byrd, Myers’ former teammate.

The Nationals’ only early scoring opportunity came in the second, when third base coach Tony Beasley waved Nick Johnson around on Anderson’s base hit to right. Abreu’s throw was on the money, but Johnson managed to elude catcher Mike Lieberthal’s tag.

Unfortunately, Johnson also managed to elude the plate and thus was left to be tagged out by Lieberthal as he crouched on all fours behind the batter’s box.

That was the extent of Washington’s offense until Byrd’s homer in the eighth. Myers gave way to Tom Gordon in the ninth, and the veteran closer finished things for his 15th save.

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

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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