- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 11, 2009

HOUSTON | Had Roy Oswalt not grounded out to second in the sixth inning of the Washington Nationals’ game with the Houston Astros on Friday night, the Nationals might not have had a chance to get their first true win of a heretofore miserable road trip.

Had either of the two runners that got thrown out at the plate scored, the Nationals wouldn’t have to talk about how their bullpen turned it into a loss.

Handed a terrific break when the Astros ace came out of the game with numbness in his pitching hand in the sixth inning, the Nationals instead did everything they could to watch the chance for an improbable victory slip out of view like a rare astronomical sighting.

It wasn’t just getting two runners thrown out at the plate in a 6-5 loss to the Astros. It was setup man Joe Beimel and closer Mike MacDougal each giving up a run, the latter doing so on Geoff Blum’s walkoff single after he’d given up a single, walked two (one intentional) and thrown a wild pitch, and first baseman Nick Johnson dropping an easy pop-up in the eighth inning.

There were plenty of places to direct questions after this one, the Nationals’ fifth consecutive loss of the road trip (notwithstanding their win in the conclusion of a suspended game Thursday night). But the loss, coming in a game where starter Scott Olsen rebounded from a ragged start and Oswalt’s numb hand loosened his sleeper hold on Washington’s lineup, stung all the same.

“It’s at the point where it’s beyond embarrassing for us,” Beimel said. “I think everybody in this clubhouse should be embarrassed by the way we played, and the way we lose games. We find a way all the time, and it’s sickening. It’s to the point where it’s just hard to take, and we’ve just got to get better.

Olsen gave up six hits in the first three innings, saved from less damage because the two homers he has served up (to Carlos Lee in the second and Michael Bourn in the third) were leadoff shots. Olsen did get a double play that muted an Astros rally after Bourn’s homer and probably saved at least one run. He got tagged with two more runs in the fourth, giving up a walk and a hit to the Astros’ seventh and eighth hitters (Blum and Kaz Matsui) before a Bourn single scored both of them but settled down from there.

“It was a battle,” Olsen said. “They can definitely put the bat on the ball. We missed on location on a couple pitches, they took advantage of it. Six innings and four runs isn’t terrible, but it’s not good.”

But from the early innings, there was no reason to believe the Nationals could come back merely with Olsen keeping the distance between them and the Astros from getting larger. Oswalt still stood in the way.

His fastball was clocking in around 94 mph, his slider in the low 80s and his curveball in the low 70s, a vicious trio of pitches that the Nationals could never solve.

Before Oswalt’s hand went numb, the Nationals had just one legitimate chance for a big inning. It came in the fourth inning, when Johnson doubled home Nyjer Morgan and Adam Dunn followed with a single to center. Third-base coach Pat Listach waved Johnson around, but Bourn made a perfect throw and Ivan Rodriguez tagged Johnson out at home easily.

Everything turned for the Nationals in the seventh. Dunn and Willingham ripped back-to-back doubles to start the inning, and Oswalt, after a brief consultation with team trainers, came out of the game with numbness in the first two fingers of his pitching hand.

For the second night in a row, the Nationals had knocked the starting pitcher out of the game earlier than the Astros had planned. This time, they took advantage of it.

Four of the next six batters punched singles, Morgan beating out a ground ball to short to load the bases and extend the inning. Cristian Guzman, who had had five hits in his previous 45 at-bats, finally delivered a single to left that scored Alberto Gonzalez and Willie Harris.

The Nationals had a four-run inning when it was all over and a held one-run lead. Two hits and a sacrifice fly off Beimel in the eighth, aided by the popup that Johnson dropped, scrubbed that lead, though, and the Nationals’ chance to create a new one in the ninth died at the plate.

“Obviously it’s a play that has to be made,” Beimel said. “Anybody with a pair of eyes has to see that. But at the same time, I’ve got to make pitches after that.”

Willie Harris led off the inning with a single, moving to second on Anderson Hernandez’s sacrifice bunt.

When Morgan singled through the middle with one out, Listach waved Harris around third, taking a second chance on Bourn’s arm.

Bourn’s throw from shallow center was off-line, but Rodriguez had time to move back to his right and tag a leaping Harris on the belt before he touched home plate.

“He’s got to make a perfect throw. He did once, and he didn’t once. [Rodriguez] still picked it and threw him out,” Listach said. “Am I sitting back saying, ‘If I hold Willie up, we’ve first and third, one out, who knows what might happen?’ But I made my decision. He picked it and tagged him out.”

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