- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 7, 2008

HOUSTON — The Washington Nationals arrived at Minute Maid Park a team on a roll, having just completed a highly successful homestand to resurrect their wayward season.

Last night’s unsightly 6-5 loss to the Houston Astros quickly took the luster off that feel-good story.

In a back-and-forth ballgame that saw Nick Johnson, Aaron Boone and Austin Kearns all homer over the ridiculously shallow left-field wall, the Nationals were done in by a bullpen that had been great over the last two weeks.

Leading 5-4 in the eighth, setup man Luis Ayala allowed the Astros to come back and win it, surrendering back-to-back, two-out singles to Miguel Tejada and Lance Berkman (the latter’s fifth hit of the night). Carlos Lee then produced the game-winner, a sinking liner to right that fell just in front of a diving Kearns and then rolled nearly to the wall as Tejada and Berkman raced around the bases to a roar from the crowd of 30,355.

“I got a pretty good jump on it, came in and I thought I had a play on it,” Kearns said. “I thought I had a chance to catch it.”

But as manager Manny Acta put it, the game “shouldn’t have gotten to that point.”

Ayala (1-2) allowed two of the eighth-inning hits on 0-2 pitches: Tejada’s blooper to shallow center and Lee’s go-ahead double in front of Kearns. The reliever, who has not been speaking to media members most of the season, declined to comment after the game.

Perhaps the most nauseating sequence of the night came in the seventh, when reliever Saul Rivera walked two, allowed the hefty Berkman to steal third base and then balked him home in bizarre fashion. Attempting the time-honored, fake-to-third-turn-to-first move for the second time in that at-bat, Rivera was fingered by umpire Brian Runge for stepping toward the plate instead of toward third, a mistake that allowed the Astros to tie the game at 4-4.

“Big-time surprise because I knew I didn’t balk,” Rivera said. “Kind of frustrating, especially in that moment right there.”

Kearns briefly picked up his pitching staff by belting Doug Brocail’s first pitch in the eighth into the Crawford Boxes in left field, the league-leading 44th home run surrendered by Houston’s pitching staff this season. But the lead was short-lived, and the Nationals (14-19) again squandered a late lead.

“That’s definitely a game I think everyone thinks we should’ve won,” Kearns said. “It’s a tough one.”

The wild finish rendered Shawn Hill’s laborious start moot, though it shouldn’t be overlooked.

After progressively throwing better in each of his first three starts, Hill appeared to be less in form last night, nearly from the beginning. He allowed back-to-back doubles to Berkman and Lee and later a two-out single to the opposing pitcher in the second. And he was tagged for another run in the third, though Wily Mo Pena didn’t help matters by dropping Kaz Matsui’s drive to deep left field (it was scored a double).

Pitching coach Randy St. Claire, perhaps sensing a kink in Hill’s mechanics, made a couple of mound visits to talk shop with his starter. Hill, though, never quite looked right.

“I don’t know what to place the blame on,” he said. “But warming up before the game … I just felt out of sorts there.”

Despite all that, Hill managed to keep his team in the game, even if he did blow a 3-2 lead in the fifth by allowing three straight two-out singles, the last a blooper by Hunter Pence that scored Berkman from second and knotted the game at 3-3.

The Nationals had taken that brief lead with some rare clutch hits from their key offensive players.

Johnson led off the second with an opposite-field homer that just cleared the wall in left. Not even Johnson thought he had homered off the bat he chugged around first as if he were going to need to stretch the hit into a double and wasn’t informed he could jog the rest of the way until he nearly had reached second.

The more significant hits came in succession in the fifth, when Cristian Guzman and Ryan Zimmerman each clubbed two-out, run-scoring doubles to left. Zimmerman’s shot snapped a 1-for-19 slide that had dropped his already diminutive batting average to .214.

The game tied, Acta let Hill retake the mound for the sixth, even though he was already sitting on 94 pitches. After issuing a one-out walk to opposing pitcher Shawn Chacon, the manager decided to try his luck with his bullpen. Jesus Colome entered, and though he immediately threw five straight balls, he somehow escaped the jam and kept the Astros from scoring.

If only the rest of the Washington bullpen were as successful.

“In order for somebody to win,” Acta said, “the other team has to make some mistakes.”

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