- 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, when everything is lined up for the Nationals to reel off a few victories, slip away more often than they should. Another one did Thursday.

On the heels of an uplifting (if bizarre) coda to the game they started May 5 and wound up winning in a seven-minute bottom of the 11th inning, the Nationals stormed out for four runs in the first three innings Thursday. But the juice wouldn’t stretch any further. Starter John Lannan began paying for his mistakes, and the Astros eventually ran the Nationals down to prevail 9-4.

Setting aside the suspended game, it was the Nationals’ fourth loss in as many games on the road trip, 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 Josh Bard’s single in the third, but that wasn’t enough.

Lannan, entering the night with six consecutive quality starts, was never more than a facsimile of his best work. His fastball lacked its usual bite, and he gave up a hit in all six innings he pitched. The Astros had scored three runs on seven hits by the end of the fourth, but the left-hander trudged on, facing the minimum number of batters in the fifth when the Nationals threw out Hunter Pence trying to steal second.

Washington’s lead was still 4-3, 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 the sixth, 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, possibly thinking the ball was gone, but 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. Then Miguel Tejada singled to shallow center on a ball Dunn nonchalantly watched fall in front of him, rather than charging it, and Bourn scored.

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 Lance Berkman in the eighth only obscured the chances the Nationals had to encounter a winnable game — and keep it that way.

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