- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

ATLANTA | This will come as little consolation to the Nationals and their fans, who at this point simply want to win a ballgame in any manner possible, but at least Washington has been playing progressively better baseball each night.

The pitching is improving. The defense is shoring up its problems. And the lineup is producing some big hits in clutch situations.

Just not enough of them to result in victory.

Given a golden opportunity Friday night to win for the first time in four tries this season, the Nationals came tantalizingly close to realizing salvation, only to have their dreams dashed in heart-wrenching fashion.

Despite rallying to tie the game in the ninth inning, Washington stranded the bases loaded with a chance to take the lead and then lost in the 10th when Kelly Johnson lined a one-out single to right to bring home Jordan Schafer and give the Atlanta Braves a 5-4 win in a game that ended nearly six hours after it began.

Johnsons game-winning hit off Joe Beimel, the Nationals sixth reliever of the game, capped a long and painful night at Turner Field for a club that simply wants to savor the fruits of victory at last. At 0-4, the Nationals havent known that feeling for 6½ months now.

“You cant just sit here and talk about it. Weve got to do it,” left fielder Adam Dunn said. “But the good thing is, the last couple of games weve been in position to win it. One big, clutch hit and I think we blow both those games open. Im not giving up yet.”

One more clutch hit at any point Friday night or Saturday morning would have ended Washingtons dubious streak and would have rendered extra innings unnecessary. Alas, this team left an astounding 16 men on base, thrice stranding the bases loaded.

“Its a funny game,” manager Manny Acta said. “I dont think Ive ever seen it in my career: Four times with the bases loaded and one out and not be able to score runs. We cant blame anybody but ourselves.”

Washington did produce a dramatic rally in the ninth, jumping on Braves closer Mike Gonzalez with a leadoff double from Nick Johnson and Elijah Dukes third single of the night. A flyout and a walk left the bases loaded and one out for pinch-hitter Wil Nieves — the last man on Actas bench — but the backup catcher swung and missed at a 3-2 fastball at his eyelids for the second out.

Lastings Milledge picked his teammate up with a sharp grounder up the middle that deflected off Gonzalezs glove and back toward the Atlanta dugout for a bizarre RBI single that left what was remaining of a crowd of 48,327 in disgust. But Gonzalez quickly rebounded to strike out Cristian Guzman on three pitches and leave the game tied heading into the bottom of the ninth.

“Listen, I like the way weve been swinging the bat,” Acta said. “We just didnt hit with runners in scoring position when we had to today. Well come out of it. I dont think our problem is going to be our offense.”

Truth be told, its tough to draw too many conclusions from this game, which was interrupted in the top of the fourth inning for 2 hours and 2 minutes by a vicious thunderstorm that pelted Turner Field with rain and hail and sent the crowd scurrying for cover.

The long delay cut the game into two parts, knocking both starting pitchers out well before they would normally depart and forcing both bullpens to pull yeomans work.

Atlanta ace Derek Lowe was dominating for the most part with his trademark sinker, striking out four of the first five Nationals who came to the plate, though he did start fading in the third when he plunked Milledge in the left hand and surrendered an RBI double to Ryan Zimmerman. Lowe recovered to strike out Johnson and Dukes (who tweaked his right groin on the games final play) in succession and avoid any further damage, but with his pitch count at 71 by the time the delay came, his night was over.

Shairon Martis was an even bigger victim, having only thrown 48 pitches when the tarp was rolled out. The rookie right-hander had made one costly mistake — a 2-0 fastball to Yunel Escobar in the third that wound up in the left-field bleachers for a three-run homer — but was otherwise pitching the most effective game by a Washington starter in this young season.

Alas, Martis was forced to the bench by the lengthy delay, making him the third Nationals starter to last only three innings so far this year.

Among the Nationals myriad issues during their season-opening sweep at the hands of the Marlins was a lack of clutch hitting. They entered Fridays game with only six hits in 28 at-bats with runners in scoring position, a 21.4 percent success rate that was going to have to improve for this team to start winning.

Sure enough, the hits finally started coming against the Braves, in rapid succession. After squandering a couple of early chances, Washington got three straight two-out hits in the sixth inning, each driving in a run.

Guzman ignited the rally with a brilliant at-bat, fouling off five straight pitches from reliever Buddy Carlyle before lacing an RBI single up the middle. Zimmerman followed with his second run-scoring double of the night, and Dunn finished things off by working the count full himself before drilling a sharp single that ricocheted off first baseman Casey Kotchman to tie the game 4-4.

But the Nationals couldnt regain the lead and quickly gave it back to the Braves when Saul Rivera allowed a two-out double to Brian McCann in the seventh and a subsequent single to Jeff Francoeur.

Atlantas much-maligned bullpen — it managed to blow a 7-run lead Wednesday in Philadelphia — was in position to clamp down and finish this one off. But Gonzalez saw to it that this already-long night of baseball was going to be extended well into Saturday morning.

That made the sting of another defeat all the more painful for Washington.

“We just have to realize its a long season,” Beimel said. “This probably wont be the last time we lose four in a row. But whether you do it at the beginning, in the middle or whenever it is, its not good.”

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