- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

The result was predictable, almost inexorable, as the Washington Nationals’ one-run lead became the property of their bullpen Sunday. For the third time in three days, the Nationals entered the ninth inning three outs from winning a game against the Florida Marlins - a team that had taken 17 of 20 from them before this weekend - and watched it slip out of the hands of their relievers like a penny down a sink drain.

The response was just as predictable: Three relievers, one for each blown lead this weekend, trudged into manager Manny Acta’s office after Sunday’s 7-4 loss and came out minutes later with the same look on their faces.

Steven Shell fired his keys into his locker. Wil Ledezma silently packed his belongings into a drawstring bag. Saul Rivera donned a red trucker’s hat and walked out of the clubhouse.

Sunday’s defeat was the only one that prompted an immediate personnel change from the Nationals’ front office. And yet, in reality, it was the culmination of a weekend-long meltdown from an already shaky bullpen that, when presented with a chance to energize the team’s season with a sweep of the first-place Marlins, instead sent it further into despair.

“I think it’s embarrassing. I think it’s unacceptable. I think our fans have every right to be mad like we are right now,” Acta said. “And it’s not going to be tolerated. We’re going to have a brand-new bullpen [Monday], and if those guys that come in don’t get it done, we’re going to continue getting guys out of here because I think all of us deserve better.”

There were other reasons for Sunday’s defeat; the Nationals left 13 runners on base, ending three innings with the bases loaded. But the brunt of the blame fell squarely on a bullpen that blew two leads and has given up 30 runs in 41 2/3 innings.

The final blow came off Rivera, who took his third loss in as many appearances. He started off the ninth by walking Emilio Bonifacio. With Bonifacio inching toward second, Rivera threw a 1-2 fastball down the middle of the plate to John Baker, who smacked it all the way to the wall in left center.

Bonifacio scoring from first was a foregone conclusion, and the score was tied at 4-4. Rivera proceeded to issue two one-out walks, then gave up a bases-clearing double to Jeremy Hermida that put the game out of reach.

“I just had to make better pitches,” Rivera said. “The only thing I can do is keep working hard and try to get those zeros in the bullpen.”

But Rivera wasn’t the only one who came up short Sunday.

Shell pitched for the first time in a week, taking the ball from Daniel Cabrera with the Nationals up 3-1 in the sixth inning. He walked Hermida and gave up a hit to Cody Ross. The run was charged to Cabrera, but the Marlins pulled within a run on Shell’s watch.

After he came out of the game, the Nationals turned to Mike Hinckley for two innings. Both Joel Hanrahan and Joe Beimel had pitched the previous two days, so Washington had few options other than the left-hander. He gave up a home run to Ross in the eighth.

Hinckley also got hit in the hand with a comebacker from Alfredo Amezaga but stayed in the game. X-rays were negative on his hand, and afterward he was more affected by the homer he gave up than any pain.

“I take responsibility for myself,” Hinckley said. “I didn’t get the job done today.”

Still, it appeared the Nationals got a reprieve in the eighth inning when Dan Uggla made a throwing error while trying to turn an inning-ending double play on Ryan Zimmerman. That allowed a run to score, putting the Nationals up 4-3.

All that meant was one more lead for Washington to give back.

“We had them beat three games in a row,” Zimmerman said. “For it to happen three times in a row, it makes it a little bit tougher, but you can’t really change it now.”

After the departures of Shell, Ledezma and Rivera, Washington will purchase the contract of veteran right-hander Kip Wells and recall right-handers Garrett Mock and Jason Bergmann from Syracuse. Wells will be used in long relief, acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. Mock was a closer in Class AAA; Bergmann, who mostly started last season, was told this spring he would be used in relief.

Acta, who likes to say the word “frustrated” isn’t in his vocabulary, said he’s still positive after a 1-10 start. But in a postgame news conference in which the manager was as firm as he’s likely to get, he made it clear the door out of the bullpen will revolve until the Nationals find something that works.

“I can control my attitude and my effort, every single day. But I’m the only one,” Acta said. “I don’t think our fans, and I don’t think the rest of the team deserves this. There are plenty of guys in Triple-A, and we’re not going to stop. We’re going to make it better - somehow, some way. We’re not going to stay here all season with the same guys going down every single day.”

• Ben Goessling can be reached at bgoessling@washingtontimes.com.

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