- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2009

DENVER | Of the Washington Nationals’ many two-plus-two-equals-five losses this season — the ones that seem to defy logic — few have involved a pitching performance this crafty or fielding this effective in preventing runs.

The Nationals have lost plenty of games on the bullpen meltdown and the botched fly ball. But they haven’t lost when one of their rookie starters weaves through a hot team and they generate enough opportunities to beat a dominant pitcher. But there’s that common denominator: opportunity. That has been a theme of plenty of losses this year, with missed chances to score being possibly the most consistent companion of all the other harebrained traits of Washington defeats.

So that’s how the Nationals lost 1-0 to the Colorado Rockies on Monday night. Craig Stammen stood unflinchingly against soaring Rockies ace Jason Marquis for seven innings, holding a team that has scored 169 runs in 32 games since June 1 to a single tally. And the Nationals bailed him out with uncharacteristically sure-handed fielding, including three double plays.

Their offense never could boost Stammen over the top. It wasn’t for lack of effort — the Nationals got seven hits off Marquis and loaded the bases twice — but it rarely is with this team.

Marquis, coming off a two-hitter against the Dodgers on June 30, had almost as easy a time with a Nationals lineup that probably possessed more punch than the one he beat in his last start but couldn’t muster enough plate discipline to stretch the right-hander.

Of the first 21 outs Marquis recorded, 12 were on ground balls. He threw just 80 pitches through the first seven innings; 61 of those went for strikes.

When the Nationals finally rallied against him in the seventh inning — starting with Adam Dunn’s double off the padding below the right-field scoreboard and then Josh Willingham’s single to left — Marquis quickly induced a comebacker to the mound from Cristian Guzman and managed to catch Dunn loitering off third.

A Josh Bard single was enough to load the bases but not score a run. That became critical when Ronnie Belliard grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, ending the inning and one of the Nationals’ two premium chances to beat Marquis.

The second one came in the eighth. Nyjer Morgan and Nick Johnson each singled with one out, and Ryan Zimmerman moved both runners up with a fielder’s choice. Choosing to bypass the Nationals’ best power hitter (Dunn) for their hottest hitter (Willingham), the Rockies’ bold move worked when Willingham lifted a tame fly ball to right for the third out.

Replicating almost the same formula Marquis used, Stammen nearly matched the Rockies’ ace for seven innings, needing a little more luck than Marquis did but getting out of jams just as effectively.

Stammen gave up two hits and a walk in the first inning, which accounted for Colorado’s only run against him. But he got a double play to end that inning, and the last three hits the Rockies got off him were harmless.

Marquis led off the third with a hit, but Dexter Fowler hit into a fielder’s choice. After he stole second, the Nationals doubled Fowler off when Clint Barmes smoked a liner right at Guzman.

That same escape hatch got Stammen out of the sixth, when Barmes led off with a double. Todd Helton followed with a hard liner to Belliard, who doubled up Barmes.

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