- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Perhaps the worst thing the Washington Nationals could do in the bottom of the ninth Tuesday night was rally to score only one run and force this ballgame against the Pittsburgh Pirates into extra innings.

Not that the game-tying rally wasn’t impressive, and it gave the Nationals Park crowd of 18,579 reason to believe for a change. But in failing to finish the Pirates off right there when they had the chance, the Nationals left the game in the hands of the majors’ worst bullpen.

And everyone knows how that usually works out.

So it was that left-hander Joe Beimel surrendered three runs in the top of the 10th, turning what could have been an inspiring Washington victory into a demoralizing 8-5 loss that represented the District’s latest bullpen implosion.

Beimel, who now owns a 9.35 ERA since returning from the disabled list two weeks ago, nearly escaped the 10th without any damage. But then Adam LaRoche drove a two-run double to right, and Brandon Moss followed with an RBI single up the middle, completing the rally and sending the Nationals to their sixth straight loss to open an 11-game homestand.

Washington had come back from an early 5-0 deficit, scoring the tying run in dramatic fashion.

Nick Johnson ignited a ninth-inning rally, scorching a one-out triple off the center-field fence for his first three-bagger in four years. Pirates lefty Sean Burnett pitched around Ryan Zimmerman to get a more favorable matchup against Adam Dunn but bounced an 0-1 offering in the dirt that allowed Johnson to score the tying run.

The Nationals could have won it right there, but Dunn struck out, and after a walk to Josh Willingham, Willie Harris was caught looking at a 2-2 pitch down the middle to send the game into extra innings.

The rally did get Shairon Martis off the hook for his first loss of the season. No member of Washington’s rotation has benefited more from the improved offensive output this season than Martis, who opened the year 5-0 both because of his effective pitching but also because his teammates scored an average of 6.43 runs in each of his seven previous outings.

So how out of character was it not only for Martis to struggle early on against the Pirates lineup, but for his teammates to offer very little in the way of run support for the rookie right-hander?

Martis got himself into trouble right off the bat. Five batters into the first inning, he had allowed a double and an RBI single, issued a walk, uncorked a wild pitch and served up a two-run double. By the time Andy LaRoche tagged a fat pitch into the left-field bullpen in the third, the Nationals were staring at a 5-0 deficit and their 22-year-old pitcher was staring at his first loss of the season.

Had Washington’s lineup simply produced the way it has for most of the last two weeks, this wouldn’t have been an issue. But Jeff Karstens, Pittsburgh’s No. 5 starter, came through with perhaps his best performance of the season in holding the Nationals to one run (Dunn’s solo homer in the fourth) over the evening’s first five innings.

Karstens finally showed signs of mortality in the sixth, allowing three runs in a rally that was jump-started by — of all things — a bunt single by Zimmerman. He wound up scoring on a hit by Willie Harris, who wound up scoring on a triple by Anderson Hernandez, who wound up scoring on a single by Wil Nieves.

That sudden rally drew the Nationals to within a run but left manager Manny Acta to make a tough decision. Trailing 5-4, with a man on first and two outs, he could have let Martis hit for himself. Instead the manager sent up pinch hitter Ronnie Belliard (who struck out on three pitches) and sent Martis to the showers with his pitch count at a mere 85, leaving the game in the hands of the majors’ worst bullpen.

It may have taken a little longer than expected, but the end result was a familiar — and painful — one.

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