- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2008

The one emotion, at the end of a five-hour game that stirred very few emotions, evident on the faces of the Washington Nationals early Saturday morning was weariness.

Weariness from a 14-inning game against the other National League team with a shot at the top pick in next June´s MLB draft, yes, but also weariness from one of the longest losses in a season drawing to a close after dozens of them.

The 11-6 loss to the San Diego Padres, the 96th of the Nationals´ season, could have been over hours sooner if Washington had taken advantage of one more of the 12 walks the Padres issued, or fielded a ball cleaner here or there. It was a loss marked by any number of missed chances, just like so many others this year.

It finally ended at 12:37 a.m., with the center field scoreboard having reset to show the times of Saturday´s games and the sound of an ambulance down the street audible to the handfuls of fans remaining in the ballpark.

“It´s just a game. We had our chances,” manager Manny Acta said. “We´re still playing hard. We just couldn´t come up with a hit.”

Even when it started, the game had all the luster expected of two teams contending only for the right to whisper sweet nothings in the ear of San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg.

The Padres had planned to start reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Peavy on Friday night, but he stayed in San Diego to be with his wife, who was about to deliver the couple´s third child. That left the Nationals facing rookie Dirk Hayhurst, entering the game with all of 11 2/3 major-league innings to his credit.

Early on, he was just wild enough to help the Nationals get the lead.

Only 27 of Hayhurst´s 57 pitches went for strikes, and Washington´s first run came when the first of the three batters he walked – leadoff hitter Emilio Bonifacio – stole second and scored on a pair of groundouts.

The Nationals added another run in the second with a pair of hits, including a run-scoring single from Roger Bernadina.

It wasn´t enough, however, to keep Washington starter Collin Balester in the clear.

Balester cruised through the first 2 2/3 innings, retiring eight of the nine batters he faced during that timeframe, but ran into trouble after that. It was a typical outing from the right-hander, who has allowed a .196 batting average to opponents the first time through the lineup. That figure jumps to .290 and .342 the second and third times through, respectively.

“I´ve been showing signs of (consistency) here and there,” Balester said. “I haven´t been able to get five or six starts in a row. It´s always been like one or two.”

Will Venable hit a 2-1 changeup from Balester over the center field wall, cutting the Nationals´ 2-0 lead in half in the third. And in the fourth inning, Balester gave up another blast with the game tied.

He left a fastball up to Kevin Kouzmanoff, and could only turn and smile ruefully as it landed in the Padres´ bullpen for a two-run homer that gave San Diego a 4-2 lead.

That margin was padded on a pair of miscues in the fifth.

Kouzmanoff led off the inning with a double to center, and Chase Headley followed with another shot to the center field wall.

Lastings Milledge had a bead on the ball, but it barely got over his glove. The confusion kept Kouzmanoff at second long enough that he couldn´t score on the play. But he did later in the inning.

With two outs and the bases loaded, Venable hit a ball deep in the hole between second and short. Cristian Guzman fielded it cleanly, but bobbled it as he tried to take it out of his glove and throw to first. Venable was given a single, and the Padres had their fifth run of the game.

San Diego took the lead in the eighth when Sean Kazmar, down two strikes against Steven Shell, coaxed a walk out of him. He would eventually score the go-ahead run.

“We really lost the ballgame in the eighth,” Acta said. “Usually, that hurts you.”

And though the Nationals would tie the game in the eighth, they wouldn´t get the last run they needed.

Chase Headley banged a triple off the right field wall in the 14th, scoring Kouzmanoff, who walked earlier in the inning. But the Padres weren´t done.

As if to secure a bedtime, they batted around in the inning, roughing up Levale Speigner for five runs and making it so Trevor Hoffman´s 900th appearance with the team, coming five hours after the game started, wouldn´t even earn him a save.

Speigner, who cruised through the 13th, couldn´t explain the dropoff.

“I guess mechanically, I´m not sound or something,” he said. “(Sitting around so long) isn´t it. I think that would have shown in the first inning. I just didn´t make pitches.”

And all the Nationals could do was get ready to take another step toward the season´s end.

“Let´s go to bed, get ready and play the next one,” Acta said.

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