- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2008

— Over the course of 162 games, the grip of baseball’s realities becomes almost impossible to escape. Means and medians reach a staggering volume, their weight crushing almost anything resembling an outlier.

Maybe the end of the Washington Nationals‘ four-game winning streak, which stopped a day short of a season high, was a regression to the average, or maybe it was just a brief respite in the most hopeful stretch of baseball the last-place team has played all season.

But if the Nationals’ short run is over, they couldn’t have been yanked back to reality much more sharply than they were on Tuesday night.

Leading by two runs in the seventh inning behind one of John Lannan’s finest outings of the year, Washington saw a fifth straight win vanish after one mistake by Lannan and an excruciating performance by the team’s previously impressive bullpen.

The final result, an 8-2 loss to the Rockies, could be just a blip. But even if it was, the Nationals were uncharacteristically bitter after seeing a bright run end so harshly.

“It’s something that I don’t think I’ve seen in baseball,” manager Manny Acta said of an eighth inning in which the Rockies scored six runs on just three hits. “You always see something new in the game, and I don’t remember the last time I saw [four] walks and two hit-by-pitches in an inning. Our bullpen has been very, very good the second half of the season so far, and they just had an off night.”

Lannan’s outing shared plenty of characteristics with his best work of the season: He relied heavily on a biting fastball, slipping in a curveball and change-up that made National League MVP candidate Matt Holliday look foolish twice.

“It’s not very often you see Matt Holliday miss pitches like he was,” Acta said. “[Lannan] was on today.”

And like most of his best starts, he didn’t get much run support.

The Nationals created several opportunities to split the game open against Colorado starter Jorge de la Rosa, but unlike the last few games, they never put together a big inning. The second started with two hits but deteriorated quickly when Lastings Milledge tried to advance from first to second after an error by Rockies first baseman Garrett Atkins and was thrown out in a rundown.

That meant Jesus Flores’ run-scoring sacrifice fly was the second out of the inning, not the first, and Ronnie Belliard’s two-out single was rendered moot after Ryan Langerhans tapped back to the pitcher to end the inning.

Then there was the fifth, when a base hit, a walk and two wild pitches from de la Rosa amounted to one run.

The seventh and eighth innings ended with hard liners that got two runners doubled off bases: Belliard at third and Ryan Zimmerman at second.

It all came back to cost Lannan a win in the seventh inning. He got two quick outs, and it looked like he might leave having allowed just three hits. But Clint Barmes singled, and in one swing, Ian Stewart erased seven innings of superb work.

Stewart jumped on a fastball left exactly where the Rockies hadn’t found them all night belt-high, over the plate and crushed it into the second deck for his first pinch homer, a game-tying two-run shot.

“It’s just frustrating, that one pitch. That’s basically what it is,” a scowling Lannan said. “It’s a mistake I wish I could take back.

The game slipped away for good in the eighth inning in the hands of a bullpen that had allowed a .168 batting average in the Nationals’ last 13 games.

Luis Ayala got a quick out to start the inning, but after Holliday reached second on a bloop double whiskers inside the right-field line, Ayala lost his composure. He walked Atkins and hit Chris Iannetta in the back.

Charlie Manning was no better. Ten of his first 13 pitches were balls. He gave up a two-run single to Brad Hawpe that broke the tie, then issued a four-pitch walk to Troy Tulowitzki.

“You definitely don’t want to come in that situation, where I’m facing a left-hander and I know I should get him out,” Manning said. “It kind of took the wind out of our sails because we’d been rolling.”

By the time Saul Rivera entered the game, the inability to find the strike zone had become an epidemic. After striking out Stewart, he too hit and walked a batter.

The Rockies’ final line in the inning was almost comic: six runs, three hits, four walks and two hit batters.

Except in a silent Washington clubhouse, nobody was seeing the humor.

“We have to continue to pitch the guys we have here. We have two months to go,” Acta said. “I can’t just shut down and give up on many of these guys.”

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