- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

Baseball is a game of trends, and three regular tendencies could be said about the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles heading into the start of this year’s Battle of the Beltways.

Over the last week or so, the Nationals could be counted on to come through with some clutch hits while getting standout relief pitching. The Orioles’ bullpen, meanwhile, could be counted on to implode late and turn sure wins into devastating losses.

So as the RFK Stadium crowd of 22,375 settled in for the latter stages of last night’s game with the visitors clinging to a one-run lead, there was a growing sense that a reversal of fortunes was forthcoming.

“Yeah, I think it’s contagious,” Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “A few people get clutch hits, and it kind of rubs off on everybody else.”

Alas, the Nationals’ anticipated rally never came to complete fruition. The home club nearly rallied in dramatic fashion, putting the tying runner on third base in the ninth, but Baltimore’s beleaguered bullpen hung on for a 5-4 victory in the opener of this interleague series.

The Nationals lost for only the second time in eight games because they squandered one too many opportunities and because their dominant bullpen experienced a rare hiccup. Washington’s relief corps, which had allowed only three runs in 281/3 innings during the current homestand, surrendered two insurance runs in the eighth that proved the difference.

Instead of trailing 3-2 in the bottom of the eighth, the Nationals trailed 5-2, which meant Zimmerman’s two-run homer off Danys Baez only cut the deficit to one.

And that meant the Nationals had to try to mount one last rally off closer Chris Ray in the ninth. They almost pulled it off. Nook Logan drew a leadoff walk, then stole second. But the speedy outfielder froze on Ronnie Belliard’s slow tapper back toward the mound and couldn’t advance to third when his club desperately needed it.

“You just got to go,” manager Manny Acta said.

Logan could have been 90 feet from scoring the tying run with only one out, but he explained his hesitation in taking off for third.

“I just didn’t read the ball good off the bat,” he said. “I was in scoring position. If I wasn’t for sure, I wasn’t going to go. And I wasn’t for sure, so I just stayed.”

Whether Logan would have scored on Felipe Lopez’s subsequent groundout to first is debatable, but it was a moot point by night’s end. Despite putting another man on base when Cristian Guzman drew his third walk of the game, the Nationals couldn’t complete the rally. Given a chance to be the hero again, Zimmerman worked the count full before hitting a hard line drive to left fielder Freddie Bynum to end the game.

“I knew I hit it hard, but it was right at the left fielder,” Zimmerman said. “It was a good at-bat.”

By night’s end, a small but spirited gathering of fans was chanting “Let’s go O’s!” Truth be told, there wasn’t a whole lot of energy in the stadium on an unseasonably chilly Friday night.

The bipartisan crowd was probably into this game a little more than most because of the geographic rivalry, but perhaps there would have been some more juice had one of the sport’s dullest and slowest pitchers, Steve Trachsel, not been on the hill.

Maybe that threw the Nationals, who have made a habit out of playing fast-paced, crisp ballgames that barely last 21/2 hours, out of whack. Not that they didn’t have chances against Trachsel. Austin Kearns struck out looking at a borderline, 3-2 fastball with two on in the first. Then with two out and two on in the fifth, Guzman broke late from first on a wild pitch and wound up getting thrown out to kill the rally.

They finally struck in the sixth, though even then they squandered an opportunity for a big inning and had to settle for less. After Trachsel (2-3) walked Zimmerman and plunked Ryan Church to open the inning, Kearns swung at the next pitch and grounded into a double play. Moments later Dmitri Young belted a two-run homer to right that easily could have been a three-run shot or even a grand slam.

“We just didn’t do what we have to do with the baserunning and a couple of mistakes we made,” Acta said. “But somebody has to make mistakes for the other team to win.”

The hard-luck victim was Washington starter Jason Simontacchi (1-2), who gave up just three runs in six innings but afterward wasn’t content with his “quality start” because of the couple of mistakes he made that led to Baltimore’s runs.

“I guess you want to be a perfectionist,” Simontacchi said. “There’s always things you can get better with, and … I look at it as me giving up the winning run or the losing run.”

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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