- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2008

MIAMI | Jon Rauch has done an admirable job filling in for injured closer Chad Cordero all season. No one with the Washington Nationals would dispute that.

But there’s only so much the Nationals can ask out of their converted setup man and out of their reconfigured bullpen, which has devolved from a club strength to a bona fide weakness.

And because of that, games like Monday night’s 6-5, 10th-inning loss to the Florida Marlins are bound to happen every once in a while.

Leading 5-4 heading into the ninth, the Nationals watched as Rauch served up a pair of crushing homers: a game-tying blast by Hanley Ramirez in the ninth, then the game-winning shot by Josh Willingham in the 10th.

“One of those things about my job is when I come in, if I make mistakes, generally it costs us ballgames,” Rauch said. “That’s what happened tonight.”

With that, a seven-game road trip got off to a decidedly sour start, with yet another loss to a feisty Marlins squad that has won nine of 10 head-to-head meetings this season.

The Nationals had put themselves in position to win a nip-and-tuck ballgame thanks to a rare decision from manager Manny Acta to play small ball. With the game tied 4-4 in the eighth and a man on first, Acta put the hit-and-run on. Paul Lo Duca executed perfectly, grounding a single through the hole vacated by shortstop Ramirez that allowed a running Ronnie Belliard to make it all the way to third.

“He can handle the bat,” Acta said of Lo Duca. “He knows what to do in those type of situations.”

Moments later, reliever Renyel Pinto uncorked a wild pitch that scored Belliard and gave Washington a 5-4 lead. If only its beleaguered bullpen could have hung on to that lead.

After watching his relief corps churn out five innings in Sunday’s 12-inning win over the Orioles, Acta asked that same group to give him four quality frames Monday. Jesus Colome and Saul Rivera did their part, bridging the gap between starter Tim Redding and Rauch.

Rauch wound up striking out the side in the ninth. Unfortunately, he made one ill-advised pitch in the middle of all that: a high fastball to Ramirez that the star shortstop slammed to left field for the game-tying homer.

That blast ensured Rauch’s fifth blown save in 21 chances this season. Willingham’s subsequent homer on a first-pitch slider in the 10th ensured his second loss.

“Forget about it,” Rauch said. “I can’t do anything about it now. I can’t take those pitches back. I can make better pitches tomorrow and the day after and the day after. That’s all I’m worried about.”

Acta might not have needed to ask for so much out of his relief corps had his starter been a bit more efficient earlier in the evening. Alas, Redding lasted only five-plus innings en route to his eighth straight no-decision.

The right-hander briefly was in position to snap that streak Monday night. The Nationals led 4-3 after five innings, paced by solo homers from Elijah Dukes and Dmitri Young in the top of the inning. Redding had surrendered three runs to that point, but he probably shouldn’t have been charged with two of them because Lo Duca couldn’t catch a fly ball down the left-field line in the third and Willingham later clubbed a two-out, two-run homer.

Still, Washington remained ahead by a run going into the sixth, with Redding sitting on 102 pitches. It seemed a logical time for Acta to pull his starter, but with his bullpen still exhausted from Sunday’s marathon, the manager decided to try to coax one more frame out of Redding.

“We needed innings from him,” the manager said. “Our guys back there are pretty beat up.”

It didn’t work. Redding allowed back-to-back singles to open the sixth and was promptly replaced by Colome. Matt Treanor’s sacrifice fly to center - with rookie Roger Bernadina firing way high and off-line to the plate - tied the game 4-4 and ensured yet another no-decision for Redding.

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