- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 25, 2009

At the end of what was perhaps his final night on a big league mound for a while, Craig Stammen could only sigh at the one costly pitch he threw to the Boston Red Sox. The other 85 offerings the Washington Nationals rookie hurled up there at one of the sport’s most potent lineups were mostly effective. But that one - a full-count change-up to David Ortiz in the top of the fourth - still weighed on his mind.

“That was a pretty big mental mistake on my part,” he said. “I’ve got to be able to shake that pitch off and throw what I wanted to throw.”

Rather than shake off catcher Wil Nieves and stick with his bread-and-butter fastball, Stammen instead heaved an 83 mph change-up over the plate and up in the zone. And Ortiz tattooed it. By the time the ball landed some 425 feet from the plate in dead center field, the Red Sox had the defining blow in what became a 6-4 victory over the Nationals.

“The whole game was based on that 3-2 change-up to David,” Washington manager Manny Acta said. “I think next time around, he’ll know that he has to go to his best pitch in that type of situation.”

These are the lessons a rookie starter must learn. And since the Nationals have four rookies in their starting rotation, there are plenty of lessons these young pitchers are learning during an otherwise wretched season.

Wednesday’s loss, which came before a record-setting crowd of 41,530 at Nationals Park, was only the latest in a long list of frustrating setbacks for a Washington club that continues to show pluck in battling to the final out but all too often can’t do quite enough to win more games.

“We battled hard today,” Acta said. “When we play a team of that category, we have to play perfect baseball.”

The Nationals didn’t play a perfect game Wednesday and as such lost their second straight to the American League East leaders, who again had a huge contingent of fans cheering their every move in a visiting ballpark.

Washington (20-49) did try its best to rally from a 6-1 deficit. Josh Willingham drove in a pair of runs with a sixth-inning single, and Cristian Guzman added an RBI triple in the seventh to cut Boston’s lead to two.

But the Nationals couldn’t finish the deal. Ryan Zimmerman’s deep drive to left-center in the seventh was snagged at the wall by Jacoby Ellsbury - “I thought it had a chance,” Zimmerman said - and Red Sox lefty Hideki Okajima pitched his way out of a tense jam in the eighth to preserve his team’s lead.

Acta played every card available to him during that last failed rally, summoning slugger Adam Dunn (who had a rare day off) from the bench to face Okajima with one on and two out in the eighth.

You have to take your shot there,” Acta said, “or it might never come around again.”

Dunn, though, drew a walk, leaving the rally in the hands of fellow pinch hitter Ronnie Belliard, who fouled off four straight offerings from Okajima before flailing at a 1-2 curveball down in the zone to end the inning.

“We’re not going to quit,” Willingham said. “We got down 6-1, and we put some good at-bats together and got some runs and got back in the game. We had a chance to come back and win.”

Ultimately, the deficit created by Stammen proved too great to overcome. And that deficit was so great in large part because of Ortiz’s towering, three-run homer.

As he’s done consistently since his arrival a month ago, Stammen (1-3) had no trouble at the start Wednesday night. He retired the first nine Boston batters he faced, throwing 28 of his first 33 pitches for strikes.

Opponents are hitting a .172 against Stammen the first time through the order. But the 25-year-old - just like most young pitchers - tends to fade as the night wears on. Opponents are hitting .250 the second time they see Stammen and .415 the third time around.

So the Red Sox’s fourth-inning rally, plus the three runs they tacked on after that, weren’t all that surprising. Chalk it up to another lesson learned for a rookie starter who could be headed back to Class AAA Syracuse now that injured left-hander Scott Olsen (who allowed two runs over six innings Wednesday in a rehab start) appears ready to return.

“He knows,” Acta said of Stammen. “He threw the ball a lot better than what the box score shows.”

Small consolation for a guy who will be hoping to apply some of the important lessons he has picked up during his month in the majors.

“I had good stuff,” Stammen said. “I just made a couple of mistakes with it. It’s very frustrating.”

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