- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

One of these days, the Washington Nationals are going to get a quality performance from a starting pitcher and give themselves a chance to carry a lead into the late innings.

Until that happens, though, they’re going to be forced to try to climb their way out of the gigantic holes they keep digging themselves. Every once in a while, they will pull it off and emerge with some dramatic victories. But more often, they will scratch and claw and scrap and keep fighting down to the last out only to come up short.

For the third time in four games this season, the latter scenario played out last night at RFK Stadium. Washington fell four runs behind the Arizona Diamondbacks after only three innings but could not get the one last clutch hit it needed in a 4-3 loss.

An RFK crowd of 16,017, smallest since the franchise relocated from Montreal in 2005, braved frigid temperatures to watch the familiar story evolve. The Nationals got a poor pitching performance from their starter (Jason Bergmann this time) and great work from their bullpen (51/3 scoreless innings) but couldn’t do enough at the plate to pull off a comeback (0-for-13 with runners in scoring position).

“You can’t get frustrated,” outfielder Ryan Church said. “[The starters] are going to eventually get it. We’ve just got to keep chipping away and be in position late in the game to do what we did [Wednesday].”

The Nationals, who have been outscored 17-0 in the first three innings this season, mounted a furious rally Wednesday to topple the Marlins 7-6, but there were no such dramatics last night. Despite drawing within a run, they couldn’t get that last big hit they needed to tie the game.

“We didn’t swing very well with men in scoring position,” manager Manny Acta said. “We just didn’t get the timely hit today.”

And that wasn’t going to cut it on a night when Washington’s starter again ran into early trouble. After watching his top three hurlers all fail to make it past the fifth inning in the season-opening series against Florida, Acta sorely needed some efficiency from Bergmann.

Instead Acta and everyone else in the park watched in agony as Bergmann labored his way through a 24-minute, 50-pitch first inning that was as torturous as it sounded. Bergmann walked three of the first six batters he faced, including Conor Jackson with the bases loaded on a borderline, 3-2 pitch that forced in the evening’s first run.

Chris Young followed with a two-run single to left that gave the Diamondbacks a 3-0 lead and prolonged Bergmann’s disastrous inning.

“Once you throw 50 in the first inning, you know you’re not going to go nine,” the right-hander said. “That [stinks]. That’s a tough thing to do.”

The deficit became 4-0 in the third when Orlando Hudson belted a leadoff homer to left-center. By that point, Bergmann’s job was simply to keep himself in the game as long as he could and take the pressure off a relief corps that already had thrown a collective 141/3 innings in three days.

Five batters into the fourth, he ran out of gas. After loading the bases with two outs, Bergmann (who walked six and needed 91 pitches to get through 32/3 innings) was replaced by lefty Micah Bowie.

“He’s got good stuff,” Acta said. “He’s got to trust it. You could see when he was throwing the ball over the plate how easy he was getting people out. But at this level, walking guys and pitching 2-0 and 3-1 is tough.”

Bowie and his bullpen mates did their best to keep things manageable, combining to hold the Diamondbacks scoreless the rest of the way and allowing only one more hit.

That allowed the Nationals to attempt to claw their way back into the game. They scored one in the fourth when Church doubled, moved to third on a groundout and scored on Bowie’s bouncer to the right side of the infield (the pitcher’s fourth career RBI in 16 at-bats).

An inning later, Dmitri Young cut the Arizona lead to two with his first homer at RFK, a solo shot to right-center.

Then in the seventh, the Nationals put themselves in position to tie it with runners on second and third and only one out. But Young got caught in no man’s land on Schneider’s RBI groundout to short and was thrown out, quashing the club’s last good chance to pull off a comeback.

“It seems like if we could just get rid of that first inning, we’d be all right,” Church said. “Eventually, our starters are going to get it. We just have to stay behind them.”

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