- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 13, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. | Spending a night inside Tropicana Field, the catwalk-framed, cowbell-clanging home of the Tampa Bay Rays, is a study in how well a visiting baseball team can manage chaos, like a stress test to see if a bridge can handle rush-hour traffic.

For most of the 3 1/2 hours they spent shifting in their seats on Friday night, the Washington Nationals handled that chaos. But with just a crack, or maybe two, in the foundation, the defending AL champions can get their way.

It happened on Friday night, with a comfortable first-inning lead dissipating with a bloop hit here, an error there and a fleet of Tampa Bay baserunners buzzing behind rookie starter Craig Stammen. All while the Rays calmly sedated the Nationals’ offense with their supply of interchangeable yet unflappable relievers.

In the end, Tampa Bay had a 4-3 win, with the final damage coming on a pinch-hit homer that became an unearned run - the final blow in a win set up by the Rays’ steady ability to generate unnerving production.

It was Washington’s seventh loss in nine games, dropping the Nationals to 16-43.

“When you lose games, and you continue to lose games, and you find ways to lose games and it’s everybody in here, you can’t stomach it anymore,” said reliever Ron Villone, who gave up the eventual game-winning home run to Gabe Kapler in the eighth inning. “There’s nothing to appreciate about how you played, or someone played well. You can’t even think about it. You just think about why we lost.”

The Nationals scored three runs in the top of the first, punctuating the

The Nationals scored three runs in the top of the first, punctuating the inning with Elijah Dukes’ double that brought in two. With the 18,273 in attendance booing the former Rays outfielder through most of his at-bat, Dukes punched a Matt Garza fastball in front of center fielder B.J. Upton, emphatically clapping his hands twice as he pulled up at second base as the Tropicana Field crowd continued to jeer him.

Whatever momentum the Nationals generated early, though, was blown away by a torrent of Tampa Bay speed that Washington was in no way prepared to handle.

They entered the night 13th in the major leagues in stolen bases against and 19th in stolen base percentage against, but they hadn’t played a team that could run like the Rays.

Coming into Friday night, the Rays had stolen 96 bases, the best total in the major leagues by 30. Even more astonishing, they’d only been thrown out 18 times.

They swiped five more bases on Friday night, doing no less than changing the flow of the game with their running in the second and third innings.

“The best way to stop them is to keep them off the bases,” manager Manny Acta said. “Walking them and hitting them is not going to help, and it showed.”

Ben Zobrist walked with one out in the second, stole second and scored on Dioner Navarro’s single to right. That cut the Nationals’ lead to 3-1. In the third inning, Upton singled with one out and promptly stole second.

Craig Stammen hit Carl Crawford with a pitch, and the Rays pulled out the most sinister weapon in their arsenal: the double steal.

Upton and Crawford, who’d already stolen 54 bases between them to that point, broke from their bases as Stammen delivered to Evan Longoria. Josh Bard rose to fire to third, but his throw sailed over Ryan Zimmerman’s head, allowing Upton to score easily and Crawford to advance to third.

“With them on base, I’m holding them on, I’m changing my looks,” Stammen said. “I am whatever (time) I am to the plate. I’m not going to change that, because I’ve got to get the hitter out.”

That pulled Tampa Bay within one, and the Rays tied the game with a pair of hits off Stammen in the sixth.

Then in the bottom of the eighth, after Nick Johnson dropped a foul popup that would’ve ended the inning, Ron Villone threw a fastball to exactly the same spot as one where pinch hitter Gabe Kapler fouled off a pitch earlier. His at-bat prolonged by Johnson’s gaffe, Kapler didn’t miss this time, swatting the ball just over the left-field fence for his second homer of the year.

The act of giving up a home run is the most direct way possible for a pitcher to earn a run. And yet, this one was unearned, having as much to do with Johnson’s error as Villone’s pitch.

“I saw it the whole way,” Johnson said. “I just didn’t catch it.”

The error broke the Nationals’ resolve, and left the visitor’s clubhouse familiarly desolate.

“Somebody’s got to do something about it, take a giant leap, I don’t know,” Villone said. “Somebody’s got to stand out and do something special for us to win.”

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