- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

At the end of a week packed with just about every source of bad news the Washington Nationals could possibly stomach, there was still one thing the team could use to put a charge into its beleaguered fan base.

Collin Balester, the first of the team’s electric young pitchers to reach the major leagues, would make his debut at Nationals Park on Saturday night. For one night, the Nationals could forget about the mounting injuries, the still-smoldering possibility of a suspended starter and the swirling controversy over their front office and just watch the 22-year-old pitch.

But the possibility of an optimism-inducing win at the end of a long week waned with Balester’s ineffectiveness and his defense’s inability to help him, eventually ending as an ailing would-be slugger grounded harmlessly to short.

It all finished in the form of a 6-4 loss to the Houston Astros, the team’s eighth in 10 games - before an underwhelmed (and underwhelming) crowd of 30,682 - that cost Washington a chance to clinch a series victory before the All-Star break and secure a bit of good news for itself.

“We had our chances. We just played poor defense,” manager Manny Acta said. “With the offense we have, we can’t afford to be giving 30 outs to the opposition.”

Balester was never sharp, leaving pitches up early that turned into searing line drives. He struggled with his curveball, leaving it over the plate and throwing it in a couple unadvised situations. He gave up three runs in the first four innings, and probably could have been hit harder.

“Even the guys that were grounding out, the pitches were above the waste, and I was getting lucky they weren’t hitting it out,” Balester said. “Instead of driving to the plate, I was opening up a little too early and leaving the ball up.”

His biggest source of trouble, however, came in the fifth - not all of it his fault.

The inning started when Ronnie Belliard pulled Paul Lo Duca off first base with a throw, and the error came back to burn Balester in the form of three straight hits and two Astros runs.

He struck out Miguel Tejada, but another miscue in the field, this one a mental error, led to more problems.

With runners on first and third and one out, Paul Lo Duca fielded a sharp grounder from Geoff Blum near first base and immediately stepped on the bag, removing the force on Carlos Lee at second.

As Lee retreated to first, Lo Duca motioned toward third with Lance Berkman drifting off the base and looking ripe for a rundown. But he never threw across the infield, and Berkman easily trotted back to third.

“That’s a question you’re going to have to ask him,” manager Manny Acta said when he was asked what happened on the play. “Everybody saw what happened.”

Three pitches later, Hunter Pence slapped a single to left field that brought Berkman in to score and gave the Astros a 6-2 lead.

The Nationals started the sixth with a homer from Willie Harris, loaded the bases with one out and scored another run when Jesus Flores was hit by a pitch. But Wily Mo Pena grounded into a 1-2-3 double play to end the inning with Washington down two as boos rained down from every corner.

Pena has been battling a nagging shoulder injury, and will get a shot on Monday to relieve some of the pain. But the ailment is preventing him from turning on inside pitches, hitting coach Lenny Harris said, and contributing to the frustration of a potentially dangerous hitter who hit eight homers in 37 games for Washington last season but has two in 64 this year.

“Balls that are inside, he usually (goes) inside-out and hits them over the fence,” Harris said. “He’s been brave. I’ve got to give it to him. He’s trying to fight through it.”

Acta’s explanation for Pena’s struggles were much simpler.

“Right now he’s just lost at the plate,” Acta said. “That’s what it is.”

And though a series victory could still come Sunday when Odalis Perez makes his first start since being ejected from Tuesday’s game, Acta’s wearied words sounded the perfect tone for a team desperately in need of some time off.

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