- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

PHILADELPHIA — Getting into an offensive battle with the Philadelphia Phillies at their ballpark is one of those things that’s so obviously dangerous that it should come with the kind of legalistic disclaimer usually reserved for cigarette cartons or bungee jumps. Especially with a bullpen in as tenuous a state as the Washington Nationals’ group.

To be fair, it’s not how the Nationals would have preferred to structure their 13-11 loss to the World Series champions Monday night. But despite a five-homer barrage that highlighted an offensive bounty better than anything the Nationals have put together this year, Washington’s bullpen proved again that it can be hazardous to the team’s health.

The Phillies scored six in the eighth, capping the rally with their second grand slam of the game, and negated an impressive night from Washington’s offense to send the Nationals to their fourth loss in five games.

Every time the Nationals took a lead, the Phillies answered. Washington’s two runs in the second were matched with a pair from the Phillies in the bottom of the inning.

The Nationals had a 6-2 lead by the end of the fifth, all of the runs coming on home runs. Ryan Zimmerman connected with a hanging Joe Blanton slider and smacked it off the ivy-covered brick wall in center field, some 415 feet from home plate. That two-run shot was followed two batters later by a missile from Elijah Dukes that landed on Ashburn Alley, the walkway behind the seats in left-center field.

The most impressive blast again came from Zimmerman, who squared up a Blanton slider on the inside half of the plate and launched it an estimated 451 feet into the second deck for his second round-tripper. That put Washington up 6-2 in the fifth inning, but like a loaded spring, all it meant was that the recoil would be even more definitive.

The Phillies loaded the bases against Shairon Martis in the bottom of the inning with three straight singles. Martis started 2006 NL MVP Ryan Howard with three straight sliders, all low and inside, and the ravenous slugger swung at them all, fouling off two. Martis’ fourth pitch was a fastball away, but he missed too far outside to get Howard interested. Then he came back with another slider, aimed where Howard had swung at the previous three but inclined just slightly toward the middle of the plate.

The result came with numbing inevitability. Howard golfed the pitch over the center-field wall, tying the score at 6-6.

Washington scored on an RBI walk from Dukes in the sixth but left the bases loaded and gave up another run to the Phillies in the bottom of the inning, which the Nationals narrowly escaped when Howard smoked a bases-loaded line drive right at Nick Johnson, who stepped on first for a double play.

With the score tied at 7-7 and three innings left, the game came down to two bullpens: the Nationals’ rickety unit and the Phillies’ smooth machine.

Improbably, it looked like a battle the Nationals might win. Kip Wells got through the seventh without a hitch, and Washington retook a four-run lead in the eighth with two more emphatic blasts - an upper-deck shot from Johnson and a homer from Adam Dunn that landed in the back third of the lower deck in right.

The Nationals had taken the lead, and moreover they had prevented the Phillies from going to the Ryan Madson-Brad Lidge combination that formed the foundation of Philadelphia’s 79-0 record when leading after eight innings last year. All that did, one more time, was set the Nationals’ bullpen up for a dramatic fall.

Garrett Mock gave up three hits in the eighth, giving way to Joel Hanrahan with the Nationals’ lead having shrunk to two. Hanrahan, who had blown two of his four save opportunities this year, walked Howard and Jayson Werth. Then he put a first-pitch fastball on the inner half of the plate to Raul Ibanez, who hit it out.

It was the Phillies’ second grand slam, the first time they had done that since Sept. 9, 2003. And it ran Ibanez’s line against the Nationals this year to 7-for-14 with two homers and eight RBI.

One last chance at a rally came up short. Against Madson, Zimmerman narrowly missed a third homer that would have tied the score again, hooking it foul and then hitting a hard liner to center field for the second out. Justin Maxwell struck out, ending the Nationals’ loss with a whimper.

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