- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2008

They got another standout performance by a starting pitcher — this time, seven shutout innings from a rejuvenated Jason Bergmann — but the Washington Nationals know even the greatest pitching performances don’t count for anything if they can’t score.

So instead of celebrating another close victory over the Philadelphia Phillies last night, the Nationals were left to stew over a 1-0 loss that could have been so much more satisfying.

“It just came down to we had men on third with less than two outs,” manager Manny Acta said. “We couldn’t score them, and they did.”

Indeed, that’s how this pitchers’ duel was settled. Still scoreless in the ninth inning, the Phillies finally broke through with Greg Dobbs‘ pinch-hit, RBI single off Jon Rauch, bringing Eric Bruntlett home from third.

The Nationals? They were held impotent at the plate by Philadelphia left-hander Cole Hamels and then couldn’t mount a last-ditch rally in the ninth against closer Brad Lidge.

So despite allowing only one run to one of the most-feared lineups in baseball over the last two nights, Washington (20-27) came away with only one victory (4-0 on Monday).

“I’m very happy about the way our pitching staff has been throwing the ball,” Acta said, taking the glass-half-full approach. “… That’s one of the best lineups in the National League, and for these guys to do that in back-to-back games, it says a lot about them.”

If nothing else, the Nationals now must feel comfortable knowing Bergmann has recaptured the top form he flashed at times last season but could not find this April. The 26-year-old was banished to the minors a month ago sporting an 11.68 ERA and a bruised ego. Since returning, he has cut his ERA more than in half, not allowing a run in either of his two starts.

“There’s still work to be done, but I’m pleased so far with the results,” he said. “Once you build on a little bit of confidence, it’s a lot easier to throw a little bit better. I’ve felt pretty good.”

Bergmann was in complete control from the outset last night and never let up over his seven innings. The Phillies got to him for only five hits, two of them singles in the seventh, and reached third base only once.

Just as was the case Thursday at Shea Stadium, Bergmann departed with the game still scoreless. Unlike that instance, when the Nationals scored a run in the eighth to make him a 1-0 winner, this time the hurler’s offensive mates had no support for him.

It didn’t help matters that Hamels was on top of his game, allowing just four hits over seven innings and blowing Washington’s batters away with an unhittable fastball-change-up combination that led to 11 strikeouts.

“His change-up makes his fastball a lot better,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It’s not like it sinks or anything. It’s 93, 94 [mph]. But it would be a lot easier to hit if he didn’t have the change-up. He’s so good with the change-up in any count, throwing it for a strike.”

The Nationals squandered their best opportunity to get Hamels. Back-to-back singles by Zimmerman and Dmitri Young to open the fourth set the stage for a rally, and Zimmerman advanced to third on Lastings Milledge’s fly out. But Hamels got Jesus Flores looking at a 2-2 fastball, and Wily Mo Pena flied out.

So the game went into the ninth scoreless, and Acta turned to his closer to post one more zero on the board. Rauch, who had been working on a 12-inning scoreless streak, didn’t have one more in him. He allowed a leadoff single by Pedro Feliz, then watched as Carlos Ruiz sacrificed to put the winning run (now in the form of pinch-runner Bruntlett) on third with only one out.

Rauch (2-1) fell behind in the count to Dobbs, then hung a slider over the plate and cringed as Dobbs blooped an RBI single to center.

“Everybody out there played well enough to win that ballgame,” Rauch said. “And I just didn’t do the job at the end of the game.”

Washington tried in vain to tie it in the bottom of the ninth with Elijah Dukes and Rob Mackowiak drawing a pair of two-out walks against Lidge. But with the tying run 90 feet away after a double steal, Felipe Lopez swung at Lidge’s first pitch and grounded meekly to second.

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