- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 30, 2009

ST. LOUIS | Once again, the Washington Nationals’ bullpen showed it struggles mightily to keep games under control.

In the span of seven hitters Saturday night at Busch Stadium, retread relievers Ron Villone and Jorge Sosa turned a close game into a rout. They allowed three extra-base hits that led to five runs as St. Louis pulled away for a 9-4 victory.

The loss jeopardized the Nationals’ pursuit of their first winning month in nearly two years. They are 14-13 in August with two games to play. The club’s last winning month came in September 2007.

The numbers say it all: The Nationals’ bullpen is 17-36 with a 5.15 ERA, highest in the majors.

“It’s an area that you can improve in the offseason,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said before the game. “There are opportunities to address that. … With the bullpen, sometimes the dollars get eaten up in other areas and you have to rely on some people who maybe weren’t quite ready to get the job done.”

Starter Craig Stammen forced Riggleman to dip into the bullpen earlier than desired. For the fourth time in his past seven starts, Stammen failed to make it through the sixth inning. He was hurt by two plays.

In the first inning, Stammen ventured inside with fastballs to Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, the Cardinals’ main engines, and didn’t get burned. Both popped up to the infield.

Stammen tried to work Pujols and Holliday the same way in the third inning. He walked Pujols, putting two runners on for Holliday. The inside fastball drifted over the plate this time, and Holliday drilled it to left for a three-run homer.

When Stammen first appeared in the majors this season, his sinker and slider were “heavy” and hard to lift. That is changing, though. After allowing only five homers in his first 60 2/3 innings, Stammen has given up eight long balls in his past 45.

Stammen rallied from the Holliday homer and retired the next seven hitters. The streak ended with Pujols’ two-out double in the fifth. But it unraveled from there.

Riggleman had Holliday intentionally walked to give Stammen a shot at the less imposing Ryan Ludwick. Stammen got a grounder to the left side on a sinker, but Pujols foiled the play for the Nationals.

Running from second, Pujols slowed to screen shortstop Cristian Guzman from the ball. That forced Guzman to stay back, putting him in no position to handle a late hop. It became a four-run play.

“We’ve been playing great baseball, and we’re going to have to do that if we don’t strike people out,” Riggleman said. “That’s one play Guzman didn’t make.”

Pujols scored on the error, and Riggleman pulled Stammen for Villone, a left-hander, to face Colby Rasmus, a left-handed hitter. It was the obvious move. Rasmus was hitting only .140 in 86 at-bats against left-handers.

Rasmus fouled off three 2-2 fastballs, forcing Villone to switch to a slider. Rasmus pounded it to right for a three-run homer and a 7-2 lead.

“I hated to take [Stammen] out when I did, but I felt like we had a chance to keep it a two-run game,” Riggleman said. “[Rasmus] got every bit of that ball, but that’s a matchup we felt we had to use there.”

Like Villone in the fifth, Sosa could not get the final out of the sixth without running into difficulty. Sosa, whose ERA rose to 7.71, allowed three consecutive two-out hits. The last of the hits, by Brendan Ryan and Pujols, each drove in a run.

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