- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2008

If the Washington Nationals are going to take that ever-elusive step up from basement-dweller to competitive ballclub, they’re going to have to learn how to win a game like the one they played Tuesday night.

The Nationals had shaken up one of baseball’s most-intimidating pitchers - Johan Santana. They had any number of opportunities to pounce on the New York Mets‘ ace. Yet they couldn’t deliver when they needed to most.

And after another meltdown from a relief corps that consistently has been one of the worst in the majors this season, Washington was left to ponder a 4-3 loss to the Mets that easily could have swung in the other direction.

“It’s about doing what you need to do to win the ballgame,” manager Manny Acta said. “The reason why we didn’t win the ballgame was because of poor execution at the plate basically. … That’s what pretty much killed us.”

The deciding moment in the Nationals’ fifth straight loss came in the eighth, when reliever Saul Rivera walked Fernando Tatis on a 3-2 pitch in which Tatis didn’t appear to check his swing in time, then grazed the top of Damion Easley’s helmet with the bases loaded to give the Mets the lead for good.

That play brought Acta out of the dugout for a rare outburst at the umpiring crew, with the usually calm manager insisting the ball did not hit Easley’s helmet but rather his bat (and thus should have been ruled a foul ball). Crew chief Mike Reilly’s crew would have none of it, though, and replays appeared to confirm the umpires’ decision.

“They got it right,” Acta admitted afterward.

As fired up as he was over the controversial pitch, Acta probably could have been more upset over his team’s inability to take advantage of Santana’s struggles.

The Nationals have had trouble against some of the game’s best pitchers this season, being dominated by Brandon Webb, Cole Hamels, Tim Hudson, Carlos Zambrano, Dan Haren and CC Sabathia.

So given all that, they had to enter Tuesday’s game wondering what hope there might be to reverse the trend against Santana. The left-hander already had beaten them once this year, allowing two runs over seven innings April 23, and he entered with a 1.78 ERA over his last four outings.

The Nationals, though, went right after the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner, scoring a pair of runs in the first thanks to a double by Cristian Guzman and singles by Ryan Zimmerman, Austin Kearns and Jesus Flores.

But with Santana off his game, Washington’s hitters couldn’t take full advantage. They wasted leadoff doubles from Willie Harris in the second and Flores in the fourth, then squandered another golden opportunity in the sixth when Flores unilaterally decided to drop his first sacrifice bunt of the season with no outs and a runner on second.

“I just wanted to play for the team,” the young catcher said. “I was trying to move the runner. It was a decision for myself.”

Flores, though, wound up tapping the ball back to the pitcher, and only Lastings Milledge’s heads-up baserunning allowed him to retreat and avoid getting thrown out on the ill-conceived bunt attempt.

“That’s part of the growing pains you go through when you’re dealing with 23-year-olds,” Acta said. “The guy’s leading our club in RBI and is already 2-for-2 and hits .345 off lefties. I didn’t think he would be bunting in that situation.”

Odalis Perez did his best to keep the game close despite a shaky start. The veteran lefty served up two runs in the first and allowed another run to score in the third. But thanks in part to a stellar defensive gem from Harris, who tracked down a deep fly to left and wound up doubling up Jose Reyes in the process, Perez settled down and wound up posting his third straight quality start.

And when Ryan Langerhans came off the bench in the seventh and greeted Santana with a pinch-hit homer to right, the game was tied 3-3, and the Nationals had done their part against a top-notch opposing starter.

But they couldn’t figure out a way to emerge with an encouraging victory instead of yet another difficult loss.

“It’s very tough,” Rivera said. “I should, in that situation, know their offense, and I couldn’t hold it. But we’ll be back.”

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