Tuesday, May 22, 2007

CINCINNATI — Austin Kearns had played in 176 previous games at Great American Ball Park. Felipe Lopez had played in 186. Manny Acta had coached here only a handful of times, but in his first appearance as a manager, he knew the same thing as Kearns, Lopez and everyone else inside the third-base dugout after the Washington Nationals scored seven early runs on the Cincinnati Reds.

“That’s nothing in this stadium,” Acta said. “That’s nothing.”

Despite jumping out to an early six-run lead with an offensive output rarely seen by this club, the Nationals watched as the Reds clawed their way back to ultimately pull off an 8-7 win before a crowd of 15,271.

“This was definitely a tough one to lose,” said Kearns, the former Cincinnati outfielder who along with Lopez endured a difficult homecoming. “You’re pretty much in control the whole game. It’s tough when someone sneaks one in the backdoor.”

Which is precisely how the Reds engineered their dramatic comeback. Down 6-0 after two innings, they quickly got five runs back off rookie starter Levale Speigner. Then trailing 7-5 in the eighth, they rallied to score three times, capped by pinch-hitter Javier Valentin’s two-run homer off Jon Rauch.

The fateful eighth was full of crucial moments. Washington’s usually stalwart bullpen had done a fine job to clean up the mess created by Speigner (five runs allowed in three innings) thanks to three shutout innings from Winston Abreu and another from Saul Rivera. Acta then entrusted the eighth inning to Rauch but watched as his top setup man blew his second save in three days.

The inning began with a single from slugger Adam Dunn on an 0-2 fastball. Alex Gonzalez then grounded into a forceout, reaching first. When Scott Hatteberg lofted a fly ball to right-center, it looked like the Nationals were going to record the second out of the inning.

But with the opposite-field-hitting Hatteberg at the plate, center fielder Nook Logan was shaded around to left, and had a long run to get to the ball. So, too, did Kearns in right field, though both players managed to get there in time to make the play. The problem: Both players were calling for it, neither heard the other until the last second and then both pulled away as the ball fell in for an RBI double.

“I saw him the last minute out of the corner of my eye,” Logan said. “He was still running, and I was still going. He’s a pretty big guy and it could have gotten ugly. It cost us the ballgame.”

“The thing is, you’re both trying to yell so loud so you can hear,” Kearns said. “You’ve got people yelling and it’s a close ballgame, so the fans are up yelling when the ball’s hit. You hate for something like that to have a hand in this game.”

Washington (16-29) still led 7-6 at that point, but the momentum clearly had shifted, and moments later the Reds completed their stunning rally. With the count 1-2 on Valentin, Rauch (2-1) tried to throw a slider down and away. The ball stayed over the plate, and Valentin belted it 420 feet down the right-field line for the deciding home run.

“I’m not doing my job,” said Rauch, whose ERA has risen to 4.62. “It’s one of those things where I really don’t have an answer for why things are going the way they are, other than maybe me trying too hard and pushing myself a little more than I need to. Somehow, I need to figure out a way to get the job done.”

That Rauch was even in position to try to hold down a tight lead was surprising, considering the way the Nationals jumped all over Cincinnati ace Bronson Arroyo early. They scored four runs in the top of the first, sending 10 men to the plate in an inning for the first time since Aug. 18. And when Kearns belted a two-run homer to left in the second to make it 6-0, it appeared the only ones among the crowd who weren’t booing were too stunned to say anything.

Arroyo never took the mound for the third, pulled by manager Jerry Narron after allowing six runs on six hits in the shortest start of his career.

“I just didn’t want him to have a real high pitch count knowing he wasn’t going to be able to go deep into the ball game,” Narron said.

Given that huge cushion to work with, Speigner crumbled. The converted rookie reliever gave up Hatteberg’s two-run homer in the second, then a solo shot to Ken Griffey Jr. in the third, then two more RBI doubles before departing much earlier than Acta would have liked.

And even when Ryan Zimmerman homered in the fourth to make it 7-5, Acta and the rest of his club knew the game was far from finished.

“We did it yesterday in the game against Baltimore. Same thing,” Kearns said. “We got dominated for seven innings and we snuck in the last two and won. We definitely need to try to bounce back from this.”

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