- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. | By the time the ball clipped the inside of the third-base bag, sealing the Washington Nationals’ 15th loss in 18 games, the foundation for a third straight blown lead against the Tampa Bay Rays had already been laid.

There was the customary stuff: runners reaching third base with less than two outs and getting stuck there, walks turning into runs off gut-punch homers and the Nationals’ offense pulling up lame after taking an early edge.

The natural, almost inevitable flow the Nationals’ three losses to the Tampa Bay Rays had this weekend was simply punctuated by a fluke double.

Washington lost 5-4 to the Rays on Sunday, completing a weekend sweep of three games the Nationals well could have won. Instead, they just became three more guideposts in an almost comedic trip through the lost season.

In Sunday’s episode, pinch hitter Willy Aybar hit a hard hopper toward third base in the eighth inning, but as Willie Harris readied himself to field it, the ball bounced off the inside of the bag and shot into left field like a hockey puck getting redirected past a goaltender’s glove at the last second. Carlos Pena scored from second, and Aybar had a double by the time the Nationals retrieved the ball.

“Things just went well for them right there,” Harris said. “It barely nipped the corner of the base, too. What can you do about a play like that?”

What the Nationals could have done earlier was treat their third straight early lead with more care than they did the first two. Washington scored four runs in the first four innings, taking a 4-0 lead off Rays starter James Shields, but had just one more hit after that - Nick Johnson’s single in the fifth inning, which wound up putting him on third with one out in the fifth after Shields threw a wild pitch and Johnson advanced on Ryan Zimmerman’s flyout to center.

He stayed stuck at third, though, when Adam Dunn grounded out and Elijah Dukes flailed at a low curveball, just as Anderson Hernandez did with two outs in the seventh on Dunn’s strikeout.

While the Nationals were doing all that, the Rays were chipping away at Washington’s 4-0 lead with the same patient efficiency that has helped Tampa Bay lead the majors in runs.

Ross Detwiler, who threw just 48 of his 95 pitches for strikes and walked five batters, paid for almost every one of them. Three of the Rays’ first four runs reached base via walks, including Gabe Gross, who scored when Gabe Kapler hit a two-run homer in the sixth to tie the score.

Detwiler said he lost the release point on his fastball most of the day, and though he managed to get three double plays in the first five innings, he left with the game tied because of his own mistakes.

“He barely threw over 50 percent [of his fastballs] for strikes,” manager Manny Acta said. “Those walks, most of them were fastballs, and he just couldn’t get them down in the zone.”

That all set up the backbreaking double in the eighth.

Harris, having played with Aybar in Atlanta in 2006, knew he was fast enough that the play would be tough. He was preparing to one-hop the ball to Johnson at first base rather than trying to throw Aybar out on the fly.

“With that runner at second base, I probably wouldn’t have even thrown it,” Harris said. “If I would have, I would have thrown it down so [Johnson] would be able to get a long hop.”

But he never got the chance. The ball bounced away, and another loss was ordained.

“Have I ever played on a team [that’s this snakebitten]? I played on a team like that last year,” Harris said. “There’s nothing you can do about it. I mean, we go out there, we put our best effort out there and stuff like that happens. The ball hit the bag. That’s one time, and who knows how many other times we’ve gone through something like that. We’ll be fine. We’ve just got to figure out how to win those one-run games.”

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