- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

PHILADELPHIA | The word Manny Acta has used time and again after the Washington Nationals’ bullpen has blown a lead this year is “deflating.”

But in each of the three previous games in which they had blown a late lead, the Nationals had come back to take a late lead again the next day. That alone might have been reason to hope they could recover again after frittering away a four-run lead in the eighth on Monday night.

On the other hand, maybe Tuesday night was when the air finally went out of the Nationals.

Their offense showing little and starter John Lannan struggling as he did in his first two outings of the year, the Nationals lost 7-1 to the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park. It was their fifth loss in six games and dropped them to 4-15 for the year.

Aside from being the worst record in the majors, it also means the Nationals have to win Wednesday night just to equal their mark after 20 games last season, a standard no one in the organization thought the team would be approaching again this year.

“We’re scoring enough runs most nights,” manager Acta said. “It’s a matter of putting things together - throwing strikes, catching the ball when we have to and closing the deal at the end.”

The Nationals’ latest attempt at a bullpen alignment - handing the late-inning duties to journeymen Julian Tavarez and Kip Wells - never got close to being implemented Tuesday night.

Lannan, after righting his season with a pair of impressive starts, slipped back to some of the same issues that got him in trouble the first two times through the rotation this season. He threw just 53 of his 83 pitches for strikes, getting away from the pound-the-zone approach that has made him the poster boy for the Nationals’ pitching philosophy the last year and a half.

He missed with a pair of sliders against Chase Utley and Pedro Feliz in the third inning, and both of them turned into Phillies homers. Utley belted one over the right-field wall on an 0-2 pitch to put Philadelphia up by two, and Feliz, after an error by Alberto Gonzalez extended the inning, hit a first-pitch homer to left that scored three runs.

“I don’t know how many home runs were hit the last two games, but those tend to be the difference-makers,” Lannan said. “I’m a ground-ball pitcher, so this park really shouldn’t play into it. But when you leave the ball up and get behind in the count, anywhere those balls are pretty much out.”

The error was as indicative of the Nationals’ problems as Lannan’s struggles. It was Gonzalez’s sixth of the year and the last one he will make for the Nationals for a while; the team plans to option him to Class AAA Syracuse on Wednesday to make room for Cristian Guzman’s return.

“I’ll work on my defense and my offense and come back,” Gonzalez said.

Utley got Lannan one more time in the fifth, waiting for Lannan to throw a fastball on a 3-1 count and belting it to right for a solo homer. It was his second of the game and seventh of the year.

As flat as the Nationals’ offense looked after scoring 19 runs the past two days, the Phillies’ three home runs did more than enough to seal the win.

Washington did a decent job grinding out long at-bats against Phillies ace Cole Hamels, who was recovering from an injury to his left shoulder but took just enough ill-advised swings to negate whatever offense they set up.

After Ryan Zimmerman extended his hitting streak to 17 games with a double in the first inning, Adam Dunn watched Hamels throw three straight fastballs for balls. He swung at the fourth one, grounding it to short to end the inning.

Austin Kearns drew a one-out walk in the second, only to get forced out at second when Jesus Flores grounded a first-pitch fastball to short for an inning-ending double play.

Even after Hamels left the game with another injury - this one a sprained left ankle while trying to field Lannan’s fifth-inning bunt - the Nationals couldn’t do much with the early-exit gift.

Dunn hit his sixth homer of the year in the sixth inning, a titanic solo shot to the upper deck in right field. But the Nationals couldn’t manage another hit after that, going down in just 21 pitches in the seventh and eighth innings.

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