- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 30, 2009

MIAMI | Among the developments that would have been least expected by anyone who stepped into Land Shark Stadium on Monday night, a pitching gem from Scott Olsen surely would have ranked near the top of the list.

So the left-hander’s seven spectacular innings in his return from a shoulder injury was among the most encouraging things the Washington Nationals have seen all year.

The eventual bullpen meltdown that resulted in a 4-2 loss to the Florida Marlins, however, had a very familiar ring to it and thus ended what should have been an uplifting evening for Washington on a decidedly sour note.

With two doubles, two sacrifices and three walks, the Marlins pushed across a pair of eighth-inning runs against relievers Ron Villone and Julian Tavarez and broke what had been a 2-2 tie since the third.

A nip-and-tuck pitchers’ duel between Olsen and Ricky Nolasco — combined, they struck out 15 without walking a single batter — ultimately was decided by the respective bullpens. And Nationals fans know how that usually turns out.

With Olsen sitting on 94 pitches but fresh off the disabled list, manager Manny Acta chose to pinch hit for his starter in the eighth. The game quickly fell apart from there.

Villone came on to pitch the eighth and immediately got into trouble serving up a double down the right-field line to Wes Helms. A sacrifice bunt by Chris Coghlan moved Helms to third, and a sacrifice fly by Emilio Bonifacio brought him home with the eventual winning run.

It was only the latest ragged relief performance for Villone, who after posting a 0.00 ERA through his first 19 appearances this season has now been scored on in six of his last 10 outings. He has been charged with the loss in five of those games.

Tavarez only made matters worse by allowing a double to the first man he faced, then issuing three straight walks (one intentional) to force in an insurance run.

All that spoiled Olsen’s triumphant return to the rotation. Though he hadn’t pitched in six weeks, the left-hander arrived at the park knowing it was important to make a strong statement right off the bat. He was anything but effective in eight starts before succumbing to shoulder tendinitis, going 1-4 with a 7.24 ERA and lasting six or more innings only twice.

In the ensuing weeks, the Nationals have seen a group of promising rookie starters emerge, so much so that Olsen (who entered the season as the No. 2 starter and makes more money than the rest of the rotation combined) doesn’t seem as important a piece to the long-term puzzle as he once did.

But if Monday night’s performance was an indication of things to come, Olsen very much will figure into the plan in Washington.

Aside from a brief hiccup in the third inning when he allowed two runs on four hits, Olsen was effective and efficient. He retired 12 in a row at one point, six via strikeout, and kept his pitch count to a minimum.

Equally as important to the Nationals’ coaching staff, Olsen flashed a livelier fastball than he did pre-injury. He consistently hit 90 mph with his four-seamer, up several notches from earlier in the season.

Unfortunately for Olsen, Nolasco was equally as effective, shaking off an early onslaught to match his counterpart and former teammate pitch for pitch.

The Nationals appeared to be on Nolasco, getting a towering homer from Ryan Zimmerman to lead off the second and then a 420-foot double from Josh Willingham that would have been a homer had he hit the ball anywhere other than deep center field in this large stadium. Willingham eventually scored on Wil Nieves’ infield single.

Up 2-0, Washington appeared to be in position to seize control of this game and perhaps send Nolasco to the showers early. But in a scene all too reminiscent for Nationals fans this season, one big early inning did not lead to more big innings.

Washington’s bats went silent, producing all of one single over the next six innings, preventing Olsen from a much-deserved victory and leaving this game in the hands of a bullpen that now owns a 7-25 record.

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