- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008

SAN DIEGO - Manny Acta has three relievers on his staff he can trust with the ball in a pressure situation: closer Jon Rauch and setup men Luis Ayala and Saul Rivera. Which explains why those three right-handers are among the league leaders in appearances and innings pitched out of the bullpen.

But a major league club can’t make it through a 162-game season relying on only three relievers, and Acta knows that all too well. So when his Nationals entered the seventh inning of a tie ballgame Tuesday night at PETCO Park, the Washington manager decided to give a couple of less-proven hurlers a chance to keep the San Diego Padres off the scoreboard and give his team a chance to win late.

In came Charlie Manning, a 29-year-old left-hander in his first week in the big leagues. Manning retired the first two men he faced, then left an 0-1 fastball over the plate to slugger Adrian Gonzalez and watched it soar over the left-field fence for a home run.

So Acta took the ball from Manning and handed it to Joel Hanrahan, a right-hander with perhaps the best fastball on the roster but a track record for inconsistency. Hanrahan’s first pitch to Kevin Kouzmanoff: a fastball down the middle of the strike zone that was promptly driven into the second deck of the left-field bleachers.

Just like that, a 2-2 tie had morphed into a 4-2 deficit and ultimately a loss by the same score.

“They’re going to have to go out there,” Acta said of the second tier of his bullpen. “We just can’t put the same three guys out there whenever we’re close, behind, tied or ahead.”

A season-long search for a reliable fourth reliever has been fruitless to date. As well as Rauch, Ayala and Rivera have pitched - a combined 3.89 ERA over 90 innings - the rest of the bullpen has failed to pitch in. A group that has included Hanrahan, Jesus Colome, Manning, Brian Sanches, Chris Schroder and Mike O’Connor owns a collective 4.98 ERA, dragging down the entire unit.

“Everybody wants to be in the situation that [Rauch, Ayala and Rivera] are in, pitching in close tight games,” Hanrahan said. “And I think everyone we have down there is capable of doing that. It’s just a matter of us being consistent and going out there and getting the job done. It takes time for somebody to get trust in you like that. Hopefully it’s starting to work for us.”

Of the pitchers in that group, Hanrahan perhaps has begun to separate himself from the pack. Before Tuesday night’s game, he had posted a 2.21 ERA over his last 12 appearances. More importantly, he has learned to trust that his stuff is good enough to retire big league hitters.

Hanrahan still has issued 23 walks in only 34 innings, but his walk ratio has come down the last couple of weeks. And though he was upset at himself for serving up Kouzmanoff’s homer Tuesday night, he at least could take solace knowing it wasn’t because of a lack of command for a change.

“You’d rather have a guy beat you by giving up hits, not by giving them free passes,” he said. “That’s kind of what I’ve been trying to do. If they hit me, they hit me. That’s kind of the mind-set you have to have.”

- Ryan Zimmerman was out of the starting lineup for the third straight game last night, but the Nationals third baseman said his sore left shoulder continues to improve. Zimmerman, though, may not play at all in this series against the Padres, though he doesn’t expect to miss the entire weekend series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“It’s a day-to-day thing,” he said. “I could come back and feel good tomorrow. The good thing is it’s getting better every day.” …

Right-hander Shawn Hill emerged from Tuesday night’s five-inning, 112-pitch start with no unusual pain in his forearm or elbow. Hill, who pitched for the first time in 10 days, expects to make his next scheduled start Sunday in Arizona.

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