- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 29, 2009

ST. LOUIS | The Washington Nationals have lost their fair share of games in crushing fashion during this trying season. So Friday night’s 3-2 defeat to the St. Louis Cardinals — in which Albert Pujols slammed the game-winning homer off Jason Bergmann to lead off the bottom of the ninth — shouldn’t have stung so much.

But it did. Never before during their previous 82 losses this year had the Nationals felt like they’d been punched in the gut quite like this.

“It’s crazy, because you feel like you’ve got them,” center fielder Willie Harris said. “And then, boom! Something happens.”

Inside a dead-silent clubhouse at Busch Stadium, players fumed. Bergmann was upset at himself for leaving a 1-1 fastball to Pujols over the plate at the evening’s deciding moment. John Lannan was mad at himself for allowing the Cardinals to tie the score at 2-2 an inning earlier on Khalil Greene’s pinch-hit homer, spoiling an otherwise brilliant performance by the young left-hander.

Comparable losses in April and May left the Nationals feeling sorry for themselves. This one left them seething.

“Earlier in the year when we were losing a lot of ballgames, it was almost like, ‘Oh well, it’s just another loss,’ ” Harris said. “Now I think it hurts us more to lose a game like that — because we know we can win, especially after we won those eight games in a row [earlier this month]. We feel like we can play with anybody.”

The Nationals did play the majors’ hottest ballclub Friday night, with Lannan matching future Hall of Famer John Smoltz pitch-for-pitch in a classic pitchers’ duel. When Elijah Dukes and Josh Bard roped back-to-back doubles off Cardinals reliever Blake Hawksworth in the seventh, they had a 2-1 lead and every reason to believe they’d walk out of the park victorious.

But Lannan, who bounced back from three straight ragged outings to produce one of the best of his career, couldn’t quite complete the performance. He fell behind 3-1 to Greene with one out in the eighth, then left a fastball over the plate and watched in horror as the St. Louis pinch hitter sent a laser just over the left-field fence.

“It was a mistake,” Lannan said. “A 3-1 fastball down the middle coming off the bench? That’s my fault. I wish I could take it back.”

It was Lannan’s only real mistake in an otherwise brilliant start, one that saw him scatter four hits and two walks in eight innings and throw 62 of 91 pitches for strikes. He even dominated the great Pujols, getting the Cardinals slugger to ground into two comebackers and then fly out to right.

“I mean, he couldn’t see my ball today,” Lannan said. “I didn’t mix it up. I just threw my sinker down and away — my strength versus his. And I got him 0-for-3.”

Thus Lannan erased any doubts about his shaky performance in his past three starts, including a 1 2/3-inning nightmare last weekend against Milwaukee.

Not that the Nationals were every really worried about their young ace.

“I really believe in his stuff,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “He’s got classic left-hander stuff. He runs the ball away from hitters and sinks it and gets a lot of groundballs. We just felt like, sooner or later, he’s going to get back to that — and tonight he did.”

It’s a good thing Lannan did, because his counterpart was on top of his game as well.

Making his second appearance in a Cardinals uniform and first at Busch Stadium since he was unceremoniously dumped by the Boston Red Sox earlier this summer, Smoltz was treated to a hero’s welcome. The crowd of 40,033 serenaded the 42-year-old with a standing ovation when he strolled in from the bullpen and again when he came up to bat for the first time in the bottom of the third.

Smoltz delivered with a big-time performance befitting the occasion. His only real mistakes came in the third, when Alberto Gonzalez and Harris singled, and newly added Pete Orr drove in Gonzalez with a sacrifice fly.

Otherwise, the sage veteran hurler was in control, scattering four hits while striking out six in six strong innings and looking nothing like the aging hurler whom the Nationals beat in his Red Sox debut two months ago.

“He was a lot sharper tonight,” Riggleman said. “When we saw him when he was pitching for Boston, he was fine. His velocity was good, but I don’t think the other stuff was as good as his off-speed stuff was today.”

Yet the Nationals hung tough all night, took the lead in the seventh and looked poised to finish this one off… until Greene connected and changed the entire tone of the ballgame.

“I should have gone nine [innings],” Lannan said. “That’s not good enough yet. I’m glad that I didn’t go an inning and two-thirds. I’m glad I didn’t give up seven hits. But I shouldn’t have given up a home run there.”

But Lannan did, so Riggleman had no choice but to turn to his bullpen in the ninth. And not wanting to use closer Mike MacDougal in a tie game on the road, he handed the ball to Bergmann and entrusted the right-hander to face the sport’s most-feared hitter with the game on the line.

Bergmann (2-4) had never faced Pujols. Like so many others who have found themselves in such a predicament, he had no answer. Pujols fouled off a fastball, then took another for a ball, then took a mighty swing at one more fastball and sent it deep into the St. Louis night.

“I was really pumped up and amped up to face Pujols in a tough situation,” Bergmann said. “And I threw a pitch that I regret throwing right now.”

And thus the Nationals were left to stew over a loss that stung perhaps more than any that preceded it this season.

“Tomorrow talk to me, and I’ll probably be in a better mood,” Lannan said. “But right now, I’m still a little ticked off.”

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