- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

It could have been an uplifting moment on a day that had been filled with sadness, a turning point for the Washington Nationals when they cast aside their dreadful first week to the season and started anew.

A Ryan Zimmerman home run in the ninth in the home opener before a sellout crowd? The Nationals and their fans couldn't have asked for anything better.

Too bad Zimmerman's homer merely lifted the Nationals within a run of the Phillies instead of ending the afternoon in dramatic fashion. Thanks to another rocky effort from its struggling bullpen, Washington came up short again, losing 9-8 to a Philadelphia club that played with heavy hearts upon learning longtime broadcaster Harry Kalas died earlier in the day after collapsing in the Nationals Park press box.

A sellout crowd of 40,386 - the largest in the ballpark's brief history - saw the home team fall to 0-7 by committing many of the same mistakes that led to each previous loss. None was more damaging than a bullpen implosion that prevented the game from staying close and rendered late homers by Adam Dunn and Zimmerman meaningless.

“If it weren't for a couple big innings, we obviously win that game,” said Dunn, who belted a two-run homer in the seventh in his home debut.

Once the unquestioned strength of the franchise, Washington's bullpen was made over during the offseason following the losses of Chad Cordero, Jon Rauch and Luis Ayala. The new unit, though, has had all kinds of trouble keeping games within reach and to date has posted an unsightly 5.93 ERA.

The stats show that Nationals starters actually have fared worse - even with Daniel Cabrera allowing just one earned run Monday, that foursome owns a 9.29 ERA - but the bullpen's woes have prevented the bolstered lineup from having much of a chance at coming back late.

“Every time we got close, we gave up a run or two again,” manager Manny Acta said. “You just can't be expecting to be outslugging every team every day.”

The key stretch Monday came in the top of the seventh, when the teams were tied 4-4. The predominantly left-handed heart of the Phillies' order was due up, and Acta had lefties Joe Beimel and Wil Ledezma available in his bullpen. The manager chose Saul Rivera, a right-hander who has had more success against left-handed hitters in his career.

“You can't bring a lefty in there just to bring a lefty,” Acta said. “Anybody who has more than one year of service in the big leagues, Saul has better numbers against lefties than any of them.”

Rivera, though, immediately got into trouble, plunking Shane Victorino and Chase Utley on back-to-back pitches. Ryan Howard stepped to the plate next and crushed a three-run homer to left to put Philadelphia ahead 7-4. Two batters later, Raul Ibanez also went deep to extend the lead.

Dunn's two-run homer in the bottom of the inning helped bring the Nationals back within striking distance, but the Phillies struck again for a run in the eighth off Ledezma.

“[Our position players] are hitting the ball pretty good; they keep battling,” Rivera said. “It's kind of tough for us. My personal opinion, we should put some zeroes up and help the team out.”

Washington has scored five or more runs in four of its first seven games - it took 13 games last year to do the same - yet remains the only winless team because it continues to make just enough mistakes to lose.

Though the Nationals scored four early runs Monday off Jamie Moyer, all came in increments despite several opportunities to pile on. Jesus Flores grounded into a fielder's choice with the bases loaded in the first, and a leadoff double by Dunn was squandered in the third.

Washington also looked shaky in the field, committing three errors (two by newly activated second baseman Anderson Hernandez) and botching a few other plays that were scored hits but elicited a smattering of boos.

The boos quickly turned to cheers in the ninth when Zimmerman drilled a 1-0 pitch from Phillies closer Brad Lidge over the center-field fence, but all that did was prolong the inevitable outcome. Lidge struck out Dunn and Elijah Dukes, then got Nick Johnson to ground out to end the game and leave the Nationals searching for answers yet again.

“We want to win more than anyone,” Zimmerman said. “We're out there playing hard every single day. We've done a lot of good things. We've just done a few more bad things in these first couple games than we've done good things.”

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