- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2009

— The roulette wheel that is the Washington Nationals’ bullpen spun around and around and around Tuesday night before finally stopping on Joe Beimel’s name.

The Nationals led the San Francisco Giants by a run entering the bottom of the ninth inning, a situation that for most ballclubs would be cause for optimism but for this team only causes everyone’s blood pressure to rise to unhealthy levels.

Manny Acta has no designated closer, hasn’t had one since Joel Hanrahan was bumped out of the role two weeks and three blown saves into the season, so the Washington manager tries to pick a ninth-inning hurler who best fits each individual situation and then sits back and hopes for the best.

Beimel has been the closest thing the Nationals have to a reliable reliever, but that designation meant nothing Tuesday night at AT&T Park. For even though the veteran left-hander retired the first two men he faced and was one out from closing out a victory, disaster still awaited.

It came in the form of a single, then an error by Beimel, then a walk and then the inevitable big blast: a three-run homer by Pablo Sandoval that gave the Giants and their fans a thrilling 9-7 win and gave the Nationals the latest in an ever-growing list of gut-wrenching losses.

“It’s been the story of our season so far, I guess,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who could barely take solace in the fact he went 2-for-5 to extend his hitting streak to 30 games.

Indeed, the Nationals have seen this act far too many times already this year. Six times they’ve entered the ninth inning either leading or tied and wound up losing. Seven times they’ve scored six or more runs and still lost, including the last three days.

And then the most damning stat of them all: Washington relievers have had 15 opportunities to save games this year. They’ve blown 10 of them.

“We have tried everybody and their cousins, and we still can’t get anybody to put a zero up in the eighth and the ninth innings,” Acta said. “And that’s really just killing us.”

Acta has tried Hanrahan. He has tried Julian Tavarez. He has tried Kip Wells. And he has tried Beimel. The only thing that has changed is the name on the back of the uniform, leaving the beleaguered manager with growing discontent in his clubhouse and few answers for how to remedy the problem.

“Probably back to square one,” he said when asked what’s next. “Nobody has shown us that they want to grab the bull by the horn and take charge of the eighth and ninth innings. So we’re just going to continue putting them out there and probably give Joe another chance and see what happens.”

Beimel wasn’t alone in blowing this potential victory. Wells contributed, too, by entering for the eighth inning with Washington ahead 7-5 and immediately serving up a homer to Bengie Molina, the first batter he faced.

Still, ultimate responsibility fell on the shoulders of Beimel, one of the game’s best setup men the last three years but rarely given a chance to close until this season. Things started out fine for the left-hander; he retired the first two men in the ninth with ease and still looked in control even after allowing a two-out single to Emmanuel Burriss.

But a pickoff throw gone awry moved Burriss to second and set in motion the complete spiral downward. Beimel walked Edgar Renteria on five pitches, bringing Sandoval (one of San Francisco’s few true power threats) to the plate with a chance to win it.

Still, Beimel (0-2) was one strike from ending it. With the count 2-2, he tried to throw a sinker down and away. Instead, it hung right over the heart of the plate, an 84-mph creampuff that Sandoval turned on and deposited into the left-field bleachers to send the crowd of 25,701 into pandemonium.

“Just not making a pitch when I had to, and that’s the name of the game,” Beimel said. “There are going to be times things don’t go your way, and you’ve got to battle through them and make your pitches. I didn’t do that tonight.”

By then, the events of the previous two hours and 42 minutes hardly seemed to matter, even though there were several important developments, including the extension of Zimmerman’s streak.

As has so often been the case over the last month, the Washington third baseman wasted no time taking care of business. For the third straight day, he lined a first-inning single to center field, a remarkable display of consistency.

Zimmerman thus became only the seventh player this decade to hit in 30 consecutive games and the first third baseman to reach that milestone since George Brett did it in 1980. One more hit in Wednesday afternoon’s finale at AT&T Park and the 24-year-old will return to the District with the streak intact and a home crowd ready to embrace its new star.

“Honestly, it’s fun. I’m enjoying the ride,” he said. “But there’s a long way to go for all the other significant stuff. It’s something I’ve never experienced before. I enjoy it. I just wish we could win a few more than we’ve lost.”

The Nationals were in position to do just that despite an up-and-down start from rookie Jordan Zimmermann. The 22-year-old right-hander was twice victimized by two-out walks, once in the first inning and again in the fourth. Each time, the free pass was followed by a clutch hit: Randy Winn’s two-run double in the first and Edgar Renteria’s two-run single in the fourth.

Those really were Zimmermann’s only mistakes. He cruised through the rest of his outing, retiring the last seven batters he faced, but still departed having allowed five runs in six innings.

“I get out there, and I just feel too good,” he said. “I get the first guy out, and then I’m just trying to be too fine with my pitches. Then I hit a guy and walk a guy and give up a hit. That’s how those big innings start. I’ve just got to go out there and calm down and try not to get so amped up for the beginning of the game, I guess.”

The Nationals bailed out their young starter, though, thanks to a late rally that featured a pair of clutch hits by Nick Johnson. The healthy and resurgent first baseman drilled a three-run, opposite-field homer in the seventh to cut the deficit to 5-4, then gave his team the lead with a two-run single in the eighth.

All of that, though, was an afterthought by the time Sandoval rounded the bases to a roar and Beimel walked off the mound, the latest in a string of Washington relievers to depart in shame.

“It’s very discouraging to waste the type of offense that we’re displaying out there for a month and a half now,” Acta said. “We still don’t have much to show for it.”

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