- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Washington Nationals lost a baseball game on Wednesday night, an outcome that seemed only fair after they came one walk shy of tying a team record for the most bases on balls issued in a nine-inning game.

In its most empirical sense, that’s why the Colorado Rockies got the better of Washington in a 5-4 game at Nationals Park - the Nationals handed the Rockies too many chances to score. But if that were the only reason for the loss, it stands to reason the score would have been much more lopsided and the outcome less frustrating.

Despite their control problems, which began with floundering starter Collin Balester and threaded through every one of the Nationals’ relievers, they were only a run away from winning for the fourth time in five games.

No, there was more going on here. If walks dug the Nationals’ hole, their inability to jump on a off night from Rockies starter Jason Marquis was the reason they couldn’t get out of it.

Marquis, who dominated the Nationals last month at Coors Field, gave up nine hits in six-plus innings. But the Nationals left runners at third four times. And the outcome, in the end, was just as automatic as the pitching performance suggested it should have been - the Rockies were a step ahead of Washington.

“I think both teams had a lot of chances,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We had a couple chances to get Marquis, but that’s what he’s good at. He gets out of things and battles.”

Carlos Gonzalez hit an insurance homer for the second straight night, helping the Rockies withstand a solo blast by Josh Bard in the ninth and secure their fifth win in as many games against the Nationals this year.

The consequences of Balester’s outing should have been a Rockies lead much more substantial than one run heading into the seventh.

The right-hander, after giving up six homers in his last two starts, found a new way to beat himself Wednesday night. He walked the first two batters he faced, committed a throwing error on a pickoff play to move them over a base, then walked one more.

“That’s not the way I pitch. I don’t pitch with control issues,” Balester said. “I usually pound the zone, and if I’m going to get hit, that’s where I’m going to give up my runs. It’s a little difficult and a little discouraging, but I’m going to keep my head up and keep going.”

The Rockies’ first five batters all reached base, only one of them on a hit (a Troy Tulowitzki double), and Colorado had a 2-0 lead. That the Rockies’ half of the first ended without another run was less a feat of effectiveness than an improbability - Colorado hit two fly balls to the outfield, neither one particularly deep, and Todd Helton retreated to third after starting for home each time.

Washington got back one of the two runs in its half of the first. But the first sign of Balester’s continuing struggles came early in the second when Marquis blasted a double to the center-field wall.

Balester gave up a triple and a walk before leaving the game with one out in the second. In that time, he walked five, allowed three hits and three runs and retired four, throwing just 24 strikes in 51 pitches.

But the wildness didn’t leave with Balester. The Nationals walked 10 batters in all, plus hit one in the sixth inning. They somehow were only down one headed into the eighth inning, though, when the Rockies continued to leave runners idling on the basepaths.

Which isn’t to say the Nationals didn’t blow a couple of prime chances to steal a win. Zimmerman got stuck at third twice - after tripling home Nyjer Morgan with one out in the first and doubling in Cristian Guzman in the fifth. Adam Dunn had two infield hits, yet he got stuck at third after his first one. Alberto Gonzalez also ended the seventh inning there after a leadoff single.

So a game of squandered chances reached the eighth inning with Carlos Gonzalez leading off for the Rockies, just as it did the night before, with the Nationals trailing by a run. And again, Gonzalez blasted a home run that stretched the Rockies’ lead to two and put things just a little too far out of reach.

“We were lucky we weren’t down five or six early,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “I’ve said it before, and it sounds a little Pollyannaish, but I love working with this group. They’re enjoying playing this competition that’s going to be playoff-bound. They’re meeting them head-on. We’re just coming up a little short.”

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