- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2008

MIAMI | It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment when the Washington Nationals‘ laborious eighth inning devolved from mere annoyance into complete meltdown Sunday.

It might have been the opening two walks issued by Saul Rivera. Or the five-pitch walk of Paul Lo Duca by Charlie Manning. Or the two-run single surrendered by Steven Shell. Or the ghastly errors committed by Joel Hanrahan and Kory Casto.

Whenever the turning point occurred, the end result was just as stinging to a Nationals team that has suffered through its share of misery this season. Sunday’s 8-7 loss to the Marlins - a tragicomedy that featured a seven-run eighth by Florida - represented perhaps a new low for Washington.

“Not pretty,” manager Manny Acta said. “That’s all you can say.”

Thanks to a collapse - seven runs, five hits, four walks, two errors and a wild pitch - the Nationals limped home having been swept by the Marlins, who have won 13 of 15 games between these division foes in 2008.

“That’s how crazy this game can get,” Casto said. “We’re up 6-1, and then all of a sudden you look up at the scoreboard and we’re down 8-6. You don’t really know how it happened.”

Hard as it might be to believe, Collin Balester carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning of this same ballgame. The 22-year-old right-hander may have faded a bit under the steamy South Florida sun, but he still departed in the seventh having surrendered one run on four hits despite the following assertion:

“I didn’t feel like I had my best stuff,” Balester said. “If you would have told me I had thrown a no-hitter through 5 2/3, I would have said no way. I just had no feel. My fastball command wasn’t there. My change-up was the only pitch I felt comfortable throwing. It was a weird, weird day.”

There’s an understatement.

When pinch-hitter Ryan Langerhans clubbed a three-run homer in the eighth, Washington had a five-run lead, and Balester, with or without his best stuff, was well on track for his fourth victory.

With his team up five runs, Acta handed the ball to his surest setup man, Rivera, who immediately encouraged visions of pending doom by walking the first two men he faced.

“You just knew from the beginning,” Acta said. “When you walk the leadoff guy, even if they didn’t score seven like they did, they were probably going to be scoring one anyways.”

The Marlins scored plenty more than one. Jorge Cantu’s subsequent double cut the lead to 6-3 and knocked Rivera from the game.

“Just missed my spots,” Rivera said. “It’s one of those days.”

With left-handed Mike Jacobs due up, Acta summoned lefty Manning from the bullpen, only to watch as Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez countered with Lo Duca. The former Nationals bust didn’t need to take his bat off his shoulder; Manning walked him on five pitches.

Enter Shell, who immediately uncorked a wild pitch and then allowed a two-run single by Dan Uggla, bringing the Marlins within a run. Another single by Luis Gonzalez put the tying run on third base, and still Washington had yet to record an out.

“You just try to learn from it more than anything,” Shell said. “I mean, it’ll probably happen again one of these days. The best teams in baseball have innings like that. You just learn from it and learn from your mistakes.”

Eventually, Hanrahan came on to try to escape the jam and preserve the slim lead. But Washington’s young closer was greeted by a perfectly placed squeeze bunt by Alfredo Amezaga. The tying run scored easily, and Hanrahan complicated matters by throwing a no-look shuffle pass from his knees to an uncovered first base for an error.

The remaining details were mostly immaterial. Hanrahan issued another walk. Casto committed another error, allowing the Marlins to tack on another run. Washington threatened in the ninth, getting an RBI double from Lastings Milledge, but Elijah Dukes struck out to end the game, and the Nationals trudged away with another mind-boggling loss.

“It’s nothing that we can’t recover from,” Casto said. “It’s a tough loss, especially a getaway day and we’ve got a five-run lead. But it’s not like we’re not going to come back and play tomorrow.”

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