- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. | The Washington Nationals lost for the 44th time in 60 games Saturday night, a stretch of futility almost as impressive in its variety as its length.

The Nationals have lost games in which they’ve scored bunches of runs. They’ve dropped fly balls, booted grounders, thrown wild pitches, walked batters, blindly missed throws and given up grand slams. They began a weekend series against the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night with Nick Johnson missing a foul pop-up that would have ended the eighth inning and Ron Villone giving up a homer a pitch later.

Having run the gamut of ways to lose, the Nationals were back to their old standby Saturday night: They took a lead, watched a rookie starter gamely preserve it and saw their bullpen tear it apart.

Washington’s 8-3 loss to the defending AL champions boiled down to the sixth inning, a seven-run conflagration of hits, walks and homers. It matched the largest inning the Nationals have allowed this year, and a day that began with rumors of manager Manny Acta’s impending departure ended with another deflating loss.

“It was a huge inning for them,” Acta said. “Obviously we didn’t make very good pitches there, and they took advantage of it. You usually win or lose the ballgame in one inning, and we did right there.”

It certainly wasn’t the fault of rookie right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, who allowed only one run in front of 30,586 fans at Tropicana Field.

Zimmermann, who was bumped from his start Tuesday because of elbow tightness, came out looking sharp for the second time in three outings. After B.J. Upton reached on a Nick Johnson error to start the game and stole second soon after, Zimmermann walked Carl Crawford. But with those two speedsters on base, Zimmermann struck out the heart of Tampa Bay’s order - Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena and Ben Zobrist - to end the first.

Perhaps even more impressively, none of the strikeouts came on a fastball.

Zimmermann started four more innings and gave up a hit to the first batter in all of them, including a solo homer to Pena to lead off the fourth.

But Pena’s blast was the only run Zimmermann allowed. He kept getting groundouts and strikeouts to end innings, even picking off Upton with an impressive move to second in the fifth.

“I felt good the whole time,” Zimmermann said. “I made a couple good pitches to Longoria - a nice changeup - and everything was working real well. I was just pleased with the way I pitched.”

The 22-year-old’s only problem was that he ran his pitch count up by striking out six batters in five innings and exited after throwing 92 pitches. Because of his elbow, he was limited to 95 pitches.

With Zimmermann vacating the pitcher’s mound after the fifth inning, the Nationals led 2-1. By the end of the sixth, that thin margin had been doused in lighter fluid and set aflame.

Of the five batters Jason Bergmann faced in the inning, two recorded singles, one walked and two blasted homers into the right-field seats. Zobrist connected on the first pitch to put Tampa Bay up 4-2, just after Pena pushed a bunt single down the third-base line against a shift.

Bergmann then walked Pat Burrell on five pitches, and Gabe Gross followed with the Rays’ second homer of the inning.

“The home runs were sinkers,” Bergmann said. “I wasn’t on top of it today. I really need to get through the ball, power through it. I kind of let up on it to make sure it was a strike. I think I just wanted to make a strike instead of making a good pitch, and it hurt me.”

Bergmann gave way to Jesus Colome, who surrendered two more runs before the end of the inning - and what was a one-run game had turned into a mess.

There was little opportunity for Washington to craft a comeback on Andy Sonnanstine, either. The right-hander remained strong into the eighth inning, only giving up one hit after Cristian Guzman’s RBI single in the third.

When he left to a standing ovation in the eighth, the Rays had an 8-2 lead, which the Nationals would only lessen with a cosmetic run, scored off Randy Choate but charged to Sonnanstine.

By that point, as Acta put it, the floodgates had opened.

And the Nationals were back in familiar territory.

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