- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

HOUSTON | There’s not likely to be a better chance for the Washington Nationals to turn around this road trip, which began with two one-run losses and an afternoon thumping, than the one they got Thursday night.

A win had come their way in the conclusion of a suspended game with the Houston Astros via the kind of porous defense they usually bestow on opponents. They had ace-in-the-making John Lannan on the mound for the regularly scheduled contest. And by the third inning, the Nationals had cracked the door to Houston’s bullpen.

But these kinds of ready-made wins, in which everything is lined up for the Nationals to reel off a few victories, slip away more often than they should. Another one did Thursday, ending up as a 9-4 loss.

The Nationals entered their regular game on the heels of an uplifting (if bizarre) coda to the game they started May 5 with the Astros and wound up winning in a seven-minute bottom of the 11th inning Thursday. Former AL MVP Miguel Tejada pulled Lance Berkman off the first-base bag while trying to turn a double play on hobbled catcher Josh Bard, allowing Nyjer Morgan to score the winning run in an 11-10 victory.

Setting that game aside, though, the Nationals have now lost four straight on their road trip, failing to win the regular game despite their quick surge against Houston starter Russ Ortiz.

Washington got the heart of its order going early, with Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn stringing together three hits to score two runs in the first. They got two more on Bard’s single in the third.

Lannan, entering the night with six consecutive quality starts, was never more than a facsimile of his best work. He kept his two-seam fastball on the outside of the plate most of the night, just as he has done through his hot streak, but never came inside once Houston started slapping the ball the other way in the third inning.

“They made an adjustment,” Lannan said. “I’ve faced some teams where they just don’t make the adjustment and they try to pull that outside pitch. I did have to throw in more, and I didn’t. I felt great. I threw a lot of first-pitch strikes, but I didn’t mix it up as I should have.”

The Astros scored three runs in the first four innings, but the left-hander trudged on. Washington’s lead was still 4-3 in the sixth, and if Lannan could keep the damage minimal for one more inning, the Nationals might have had a chance to get their bullpen working the last three innings with a rare lead. But the inning Lannan would have to survive was where the Nationals’ problems have been concentrated more than in any other inning this year.

Coming into Thursday, the Nationals had allowed 72 runs in the sixth. They hadn’t allowed more than 65 in any other inning. They had given up a run in 27 of their 83 games; nine times, they had allowed three runs or more. That total is now at 10.

Lannan gave up three straight hits and was pulled for Jason Bergmann. That’s when the inning, spring-loaded for disaster, got out of control.

With a runner at third after Jason Michaels struck out, Michael Bourn shot one off the left-field fence. Dunn stood about 15 feet away from the wall, trying to make Bourn start into a home run trot.

Only it rebounded hard off the scoreboard. Dunn wasn’t in line to intercept it, and didn’t catch up to it until it was well down the left-field line. Bourn beat his throw to third, a run scored and the Astros had their second triple of the inning.

“I didn’t want him to be running hard out of the box, because I knew it was going to hit off that wall,” Dunn said. “That’s kind of why I tried to deke him a little bit. It just hit that metal thing and took off.”

Then Tejada singled to shallow center on a ball Dunn watched fall in front of him rather than charging it, and Bourn scored. Dunn, who made a pair of errors in Wednesday’s loss to the Rockies, got support from manager Manny Acta after the game.

“We didn’t bring Dunn over here to play defense,” Acta said. “He is what he is, and we love the 40 home runs and 100-something RBI that he’s going to bring because we didn’t have that here. I can’t ask Dunn to play outfield like Nyjer Morgan plays it. That ball was off the wall. It kept on rolling. And the other one, he couldn’t get to it.”

But the implosion would turn out to be decisive; the Nationals continued their trend of sputtering in the later innings. After scoring four runs in the first three innings, they had just three hits in the last six. A three-run homer by Berkman in the eighth only obscured how winnable the game had been for the Nationals.

“We had opportunities to kind of blow the game open,” Dunn said. “We obviously didn’t do that.”

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