- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2008

PITTSBURGH | The situation had an eerily familiar feel to it. Tight ballgame. Ninth inning. Matt Capps on the mound. Elijah Dukes at the plate.

Hadn’t the Washington Nationals seen this before?

Well, yes, but only the situation, not the end result. Unlike Tuesday night, when Dukes doubled off Capps and set the stage for Lastings Milledge to launch a game-winning homer, this time the Pittsburgh Pirates closer emerged the victor.

With the tying run at the plate, Capps induced a double-play grounder out of Dukes, the man under the spotlight in this series. Hero on Tuesday, goat on Wednesday, the 23-year-old outfielder hit into the final two outs of the Nationals’ 3-1 loss at PNC Park.

Thus, a Washington club that was flying high following a dramatic victory in the series opener couldn’t sustain that momentum and again fell into its weak-hitting ways. The manager, however, emerged somewhat encouraged.

“I think that the game from last night and the way they swung the bat last night, I think it helped a little bit today,” Manny Acta said. “But it didn’t show in the score.”

On Wednesday afternoon the Nationals (26-41) still felt good about Tuesday’s 7-6 win that featured a rare offensive outburst from the majors’ worst-hitting club.

“It can be a turnaround game for us,” general manager Jim Bowden said earlier in the afternoon. “We’ll see.”

But momentum is a tricky beast. The Nationals got the performance they needed from their starter, John Lannan, who churned out another six-inning, two-run outing. But they had no answer at the plate for Pirates starter Ian Snell, who carried a shutout into the seventh before turning things over to his bullpen to finish off.

Thus, Lannan suffered yet another loss despite deserving a much better fate. Though he hasn’t won a game in nearly a month, the rookie left-hander has remained consistent. On May 24 against the Brewers, he surrendered three runs in five innings. In three successive starts since then (against the Padres, Cardinals and now Pirates) he has finished with the same pitching line: two runs allowed over six innings.

Lannan’s 3.43 ERA leads Washington’s rotation, yet his record now stands at 4-7 because his teammates haven’t offered much run support. The Nationals have scored a total of 12 runs over his last six starts.

“You really can’t control wins and losses,” he said. “I can only control what I can do. Just trying to keep the team in the ballgame, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’ve just got to keep doing that and not focus on the record.”

Snell permitted just five hits while carrying a shutout into the seventh. The right-hander rarely was in trouble, and even when he did put multiple men on base he escaped by inducing a double-play grounder (by Dmitri Young in the third) or a meek popout (by Ronnie Belliard in the sixth).

Snell (3-6) succumbed in the seventh, leading to the Nationals’ lone run of the night. But even then, Washington squandered opportunities to add to its tally, with Aaron Boone, Cristian Guzman and Milledge each making outs with a runner in scoring position.

That trend continued in the eighth, when reliever Tyler Yates issued back-to-back walks with one out. But Felipe Lopez flied out on the first pitch he saw, and Willie Harris grounded out to quash that potential rally.

Down to their last shot in the ninth, the Nationals couldn’t duplicate their game-winning rally from the previous night against Capps. Ryan Langerhans drew a leadoff walk, but Guzman lined out to right, and Dukes grounded into the double play that officially killed any hope of a carryover performance.

“I feel like today it was a little bit of carryover, even when we didn’t score runs,” Acta said. “Because we swung the bat good. We hit a lot of balls hard right at people. At least in every inning, we had the hope that somebody could hit the ball out or could hit an extra-base instead of just hitting weak groundballs and stuff.”

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