- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

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

The Nationals have lost games in which they’ve scored bunches of runs and failed to score any. 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 could have ended the eighth inning, and Ron Villone giving up a homer a pitch later.

On Saturday, the Nationals were back to their old standby: 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 single inning put together against the Nationals this year, and a day that began with rumors of manager Manny Acta’s impending departure ended with another deflating loss.

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 despite his first-inning struggles being spread out to an inability to retire leadoff hitters.

Zimmermann, who was bumped back from his start June 2 because of elbow tightness, came out looking sharp for the second time in three outings. He walked Carl Crawford after B.J. Upton reached on a Nick Johnson error to start the game and stole second soon after 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 three strikeouts came on a fastball.

Zimmermann would start four more innings, giving 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.

The 22-year-old’s only crime, if you can call it that, was that he ran up his pitch count by striking out six batters in five innings, exiting after throwing 92 pitches.

With Zimmermann vacating the pitcher’s mound after the fifth inning, the Nationals led 2-1.

By the end of the sixth, that margin had been doused in lighter fluid and set aflame.

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

Bergmann then walked Pat Burrell on five pitches, and Gabe Gross blasted a 3-2 fastball for the Rays’ second homer of the inning.

Bergmann gave way to Jesus Colome, who surrendered another two runs before the end of the inning.

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

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