- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Good teams find ways to win ballgames. Bad teams find ways to lose them.

If there were any question about which team was which Monday night at Nationals Park, it was painfully obvious by the conclusion of the Los Angeles Angels‘ 3-2 victory over the Washington Nationals.

A game the last-place Nationals looked poised to win unraveled during a hideous eighth inning in which the first-place Angels rallied to score two runs on a bunt single, two stolen bases, two errors and a couple moments that might very well wind up on a baseball bloopers DVD.

“That’s the way it happens sometimes,” Washington starter Jason Bergmann said. “Seldom do you have an inning where it’s a clean hit there or a clean hit there. … It’s just the way baseball is.”

Where to begin? Start with the evening’s positive developments, which included a thoroughly impressive pitching performance from Bergmann (seven innings of one-run ball) and another surprising power display from utilityman Willie Harris (who homered for the second straight day and added a triple).

That combination had given the Nationals a 2-1 lead entering the eighth inning and had given the crowd of 24,805 reason to believe they might be going home happy for a change.

They were wrong.

Things started falling apart as soon as the eighth began. Chone Figgins dropped a bunt, and third baseman Pete Orr and reliever Saul Rivera collided trying to field it, with Orr spiking Rivera in the ankle and kicking his shoe off in the process. Figgins then stole second and continued on to third when catcher Jesus Flores’ throw sailed into center field.

With the tying run now 90 feet away, the Nationals brought their infield in. And Rivera got exactly what the situation called for: a hard grounder from Erick Aybar right at second baseman Felipe Lopez. Figgins had to hold up, but Lopez came up charging as if he was going to fire to the plate and wound up watching the ball skip under his glove for a mammoth error.

“He just couldn’t catch a groundball,” manager Manny Acta said of Lopez, who has committed a team-high nine errors this season. “I’m not going to overanalyze anything. He should’ve had the groundball and didn’t catch it. That’s it.”

Lopez had already left the ballpark by the time reporters entered the clubhouse.

If the error weren’t bad enough, Aybar never let up and sprinted all the way to second base, well ahead of a 50-foot, underhanded, off-target throw from right fielder Elijah Dukes. Garrett Anderson’s subsequent RBI single brought home the go-ahead run and put a fitting cap on an abysmal inning for Washington.

“To win 2-1, you’ve got to play almost perfect,” Acta said. “And we were far away from perfect.”

A thunderstorm delayed the start of the game 70 minutes, but that didn’t faze Bergmann and Los Angeles right-hander John Lackey, who each worked fast and found a groove early on. This was particularly a good sign for Bergmann, who has been maddeningly inconsistent all season but showed immediately Monday night he was on.

“All we know is that when he’s going to be good, we can tell right away,” Acta said earlier in the afternoon.

The Angels managed only one hit through the first four innings against Bergmann. When they finally broke through in the fifth, it required a Casey Kotchman single, a Howie Kendrick double and a sacrifice fly by Jeff Mathis to plate a single run.

Otherwise, Bergmann was firmly in control, keeping his pitch count low and giving himself an opportunity at recording his second complete game this season.

But with the game still knotted 1-1 in the seventh and Harris standing on third after a leadoff triple, Acta felt he had to seize this opportunity.

“You have to pinch hit,” the manager said. “Our offense, the way it is, with seven outs to go in that situation you just can’t give outs away.”

The move paid off, though in quite unconventional fashion. Paul Lo Duca smoked a line drive back up the box, and Lackey snagged it, then turned to complete what should have been an easy double play at third. But his throw sailed wide, Harris came racing home and the Nationals had a 2-1 lead.

If only they could have brought the rain back at that moment and washed out the rest of the evening’s unsightly proceedings.

“It’s a nine-inning game,” Bergmann said. “We had two innings of work left to do. The game’s never over, and it’s never considered over until the end of the ninth.”

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