- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2009

Ryan Zimmerman let out a sigh and pondered the play that defined the Washington Nationals’ 8-6 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday afternoon.

“I’m sure it’s happened before,” Zimmerman said. “But it seems like we can do some stuff right now that other people can’t.”

The Nationals aren’t just losing ballgames anymore. They’re finding new and more bizarre ways to lose ballgames, with Sunday’s fiasco at Nationals Park only the latest in a string of strange defeats.

As has been the case many times in the past seven weeks, Washington was in prime position to win, carrying a 6-5 lead into the eighth inning but entrusting the majors’ shakiest bullpen to preserve it. The ensuing collapse was all too predictable for the crowd of 29,577, the largest in the District since Opening Day.

Right-hander Julian Tavarez started the eighth poorly when he served up a single to Jayson Werth and then walked Shane Victorino. Out to the mound came manager Manny Acta, signaling for right-hander Jesus Colome to try to bail his team out of the jam.

What happened next set a new standard for botched plays.

Pedro Feliz dropped a perfect sacrifice bunt about 20 feet off the plate and 10 feet off the third-base line. Zimmerman and Colome charged the ball, nearly colliding before the pitcher scooped it up barehanded and fired toward first base.

That should have been the difficult portion of the play. All that remained was the catch, and Anderson Hernandez (who had run over from his second-base position to take the throw) was right where he was supposed to be.

So how did the ball sail right over first base, waist-high, past an unsuspecting Hernandez and into the right-field corner, allowing two runs to score and Feliz to advance to third?

“I don’t see it,” Hernandez said.

Come again?

“I don’t know if it was the crowd or what, but I can’t see it,” he said. “I can’t catch it if I can’t see it.”

Hernandez wasn’t in the mood to rehash the play in detail, but the common theory circulating around the clubhouse was that he mistakenly thought Zimmerman - not Colome - had the ball. And since Zimmerman never made a throwing motion, there was no reason to believe a ball was fast approaching. Until it was too late.

“Anderson, I think he thinks Zimmerman is throwing the ball, the way he was surprised,” said Colome, who was charged with an error. “He sees the ball after the ball go to the right-field line.”

No matter what caused the misplay, the result was disaster for the Nationals. A 6-5 lead turned into a 7-6 deficit, and when Eric Bruntlett doubled in another run two batters later against lefty Joe Beimel, the latest bullpen collapse was complete.

Washington’s relievers have blown an astonishing 12 of 18 save opportunities while posting a 1-12 record and a ghastly 6.24 ERA. The club has trotted out 13 pitchers in relief, and it appears more changes are on the way.

“If it’s going to stay like this, it’s going to be different guys,” said Acta, whose team has lost nine games when scoring at least six runs. “We’ve showed already that we’re not going to put up with this for the rest of the season. If it’s going to be contagious, it’s going to have to be contagious with different guys. This is not cutting it.”

While shoddy relief and defense directly led to this loss, there were other factors, most notably another shaky start from Jordan Zimmermann. The rookie right-hander continues to earn praise for his ability to battle and keep his team in the game, but he’s having a devil of a time getting out of the first inning unscathed.

The Phillies scored three times in the opening frame Sunday, the fifth straight time Zimmermann has allowed a run in the first. His first-inning ERA is 19.50. After that, it’s 3.54. For a 22-year-old who has never dealt with that kind of adversity, the answers aren’t coming easy.

“To be honest with you, this is probably one of the only times I’ve had to battle through stuff like this,” he said. “I’m just going to go look at film tomorrow and try to figure out what’s going on. … If I can just get out of the first inning, everything should be fine.”

Zimmermann also was cursing himself for poor decision-making in the fourth, when he passed up a possible double play on a comebacker bunt and settled for the easy out at first base. A double play would have ended the inning. Instead, two more hits led to two more runs.

“That was a bonehead play on my part,” Zimmermann said.

A fitting description for a game that featured many bewildering moments.

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