- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 25, 2009

For a ballclub with the worst record in the majors and far too many gut-wrenching losses to count, the Washington Nationals have shown an admirable amount of pluck over the last 2 months.

Rarely during this trying season has Manny Acta’s team rolled over and played dead. The Nationals may not win very many games, but they can sleep well knowing they almost always go down with a fight.

Trouble is, Washington can’t do enough little things right to actually seize control of a ballgame and not put itself in the unenviable position of needing to try to claw its way back.

Take Wednesday night’s 6-4 loss to the Boston Red Sox. On the one hand, the Nationals deserve praise for rallying from five runs down to get within one clutch hit of tying the score. On the other, if only their rookie starter had made a couple fewer mistakes and limited the damage while he was still on the mound, and if only their struggling lineup managed a couple of big hits earlier, they might have sent the pro-Nationals portion of the crowd home happy for a change.

Instead, a record-setting crowd of 41,530 at Nationals Park saw an all too familiar ending: the visiting team bumping fists at the center of the diamond as the home team trudged away in defeat.

The end result was the same as Tuesday night’s series opener. But unlike that 11-3 Boston rout, this time the Washington bullpen gave its mates a chance. Trailing 6-1 in the sixth, the Nationals rallied to draw within two runs thanks to clutch hits by Josh Willingham and Cristian Guzman.

But they couldn’t finish the deal. Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury snagged Ryan Zimmerman’s deep drive in the seventh at the wall in left-center, and left-hander Hideki Okajima got pinch hitter Ronnie Belliard to whiff at a 1-2 curveball after fouling off the previous four pitches in the eighth.

Washington’s 49th loss in 69 games also was made possible by a wildly up-and-down performance from rookie starter Craig Stammen, who for three innings dominated the Red Sox’s vaunted lineup, only to crumble once those potent hitters got a second chance to take their hacks against him.

Stammen (1-3) has had no trouble getting off on the right foot. Opponents are hitting a scant .172 against him the first time through the order, a testament to their lack of first-hand knowledge facing the 25-year-old rookie. So it wasn’t all that surprising when he blew away the first nine Boston batters he saw Wednesday night, needing only 33 pitches (28 strikes) to do it.

But as has been the case several times already in Stammen’s brief stint as a big league starter, the guys in the batter’s box have a much clearer plan of attack once they see him again. Hence their .250 average against Stammen the second time around ? and then their staggeringly gaudy .415 average against him after that.

So just as the rookie’s early dominance wasn’t all that shocking, neither was his eventual decline. From the moment Dustin Pedroia doubled down the left-field line to lead off the fourth, the ballgame’s entire tone shifted. Stammen nearly pitched his way out of it, striking out Jason Bay and running the count full against David Ortiz with two on and two out. But then the young hurler made the kind of mistake a massive slugger like Big Papi eats for breakfast.

Stammen left his 3-2 change-up up in the zone and out over the plate, and Ortiz delivered like he has so many times in his illustrious career. By the time the ball landed near the garage door behind the center-field fence ? some 425 feet from the plate ? the Red Sox had a 3-1 lead and their rabid fans had plenty of reason to cheer.

Had Stammen stopped it there, this would have remained a tight ballgame and the Nationals would have had a reasonable chance of regaining the lead. But the young pitcher’s outing continued to spiral downward. Three hits in the fifth led to another run. And then Jason Varitek delivered the clinching blow: a sixth-inning blast into the second deck in right-center, a two-run homer that ended Stammen’s evening and left Washington staring at a five-run deficit.

How costly did those tack-on runs prove? For a Nationals club that never let up Wednesday and managed to push three more men across the plate, it proved to be the difference between an inspiring victory over a top-notch opponent and just another close-but-frustrating loss.

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