- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

Realistically speaking, the Washington Nationals couldn’t have been dissatisfied with the way things stood entering the sixth inning of last night’s game against the New York Mets.

Manager Manny Acta had gotten some effective work out of starter Tim Redding while watching his woebegone offense actually produce two runs and seven hits off two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana.

The end result was a tie game heading into the sixth at Nationals Park, and there was a general feeling among the 25 players in the dugout and the fans in the stands that this game was there for the taking.

“That’s all you ask when you face guys like [Santana],” Acta said. “That [your starter] matches him up and gives you a chance to stay close until they make a mistake and you can take advantage of it. But we couldn’t hold them.”

No, they couldn’t. In the latest example of a sixth inning gone haywire, the Nationals crumbled and handed the Mets an eventual 7-2 victory despite allowing just one ball to leave the infield.

It may have looked absurd to the uninitiated, but anyone who has watched this Washington club the last three-plus weeks knows this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

The Nationals (6-16) have been outscored in the sixth inning 28-3. They haven’t come close to surrendering that many runs in any other inning this year, nor have they come close to scoring so few runs in any other.

Is there any logical explanation for the sixth-inning disparity?

“It’s just pure coincidence,” Acta insisted.

Whatever the reason, the sixth hasn’t been pretty, and last night’s calamity had to rank among the worst of the young season.

Redding (3-2) lasted only one batter, allowing a leadoff single to Carlos Beltran before getting pulled in favor of reliever Ray King. And that’s when it got worse.

Ryan Church squibbed a slow roller to third that changed directions as it approached Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman fielded the ball off balance, and his hurried through sailed far enough down the first-base line to allow Beltran to score and Church (who said he “had a little Tiger Woods spin on the ball”) to advance to third.

“It was the craziest spin I’ve ever seen on a ball,” Zimmerman said. “But that doesn’t excuse me for throwing it away after I caught it.”

King got Carlos Delgado to pop out, but Angel Pagan squirted a little nubber up the first-base line and beat King’s off-target throw for an RBI infield single. Pagan proceeded to steal second and third, putting himself in position to score the third run of the inning on Brian Schneider’s groundout.

“Tonight they beat us,” King said. “Well, they beat me in that situation right there.”

Santana added a double — the pitcher’s second of the game — but it didn’t much matter at that point. The Mets had built a three-run lead thanks in part to the Nationals’ shenanigans in the field, and with their ace on the mound, they weren’t going to give it back.

Washington showed no fear going after Santana (3-2), racking up seven hits in the first four innings. But it wasn’t until a two-out rally in the fourth that they actually scored.

That flurry of hits came from a most unlikely trio: Wily Mo Pena, Wil Nieves and Redding, who lashed a double to the warning track in left-center to bring both men home and put the Nationals ahead 2-1.

But that was it for Washington’s offense, which didn’t manage another hit the rest of the night and saw the heart of its lineup (Zimmerman, Nick Johnson, Austin Kearns and Lastings Milledge) go 0-for-15.

Redding, who never looked totally comfortable on the mound, struggled with the bottom of the lineup as well. He allowed a double to Santana in the third, then walked both No. 8 hitter Schneider and Santana with one out in the fifth, eliciting groans from the crowd.

“I just absolutely forgot how to throw a strike for two batters,” he said. “Especially the 8-hole and the pitcher’s spot up, you should be able to close your eyes and throw strikes.”

Redding got both Jose Reyes and Jose Castillo to hit grounders to short but couldn’t retire either speedster. Reyes legged out a potential double-play ball, and Castillo beat out a high-hopper to short, allowing Schneider to score the tying run and send this game to the dreaded sixth inning, where disaster awaited for a team that keeps finding ways to hurt itself.

As King put it: “Right now, we’re playing bad baseball.”

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