- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 28, 2009

NEW YORK | The Washington Nationals have lost a major league-leading 33 games this season in all manner of fashion. Their bullpen has blown ninth-inning leads. Their defense has botched routine plays. Their offense has gone silent in the rare instances they actually get good pitching performances.

And now instant replay decisions are going against them on a regular basis.

Two nights after losing when umpires upheld Gary Sheffield’s questionable homer to left field, the Nationals lost when the same umpiring crew overturned Daniel Murphy’s double to right field and ruled it a two-run homer that put the New York Mets ahead for good in a 7-4 decision at Citi Field.

Just as was the case Monday, the replay-reviewed homer didn’t solely determine the outcome of the game. But it again set in motion a turn of events that led to the Nationals’ demise and caused manager Manny Acta to criticize the entire instant-replay process.

“It’s supposed to clear everything out, and these last two [games], it just hasn’t been that way,” Acta said. “Something has to be done because we all just want the right call to be made.”

What had been a tense 3-3 ballgame in which Washington knocked around Mets ace Johan Santana a bit quickly got out of control following Murphy’s double-turned-homer in the sixth inning.

The situation: With no outs and a man on first, Murphy tagged a pitch from Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann (2-2) deep to right. Adam Dunn took a couple steps backward but then turned around to watch the ball, which surely was headed into the stands.

But the ball somehow landed on the warning track and was ruled in play, forcing players from both sides to scurry back into action. Dunn retrieved the ball and managed to fire a throw to cutoff man Ronnie Belliard, who threw to the plate in time to nail Sheffield.

“I didn’t think there was any way possible that ball could have been a homer,” Dunn said.

Umpire Larry Vanover and his crew, however, immediately huddled and decided to review the play. The ensuing five-minute delay left the crowd of 40,171 nervously waiting and trying to get a glimpse of replays that didn’t appear to show the ball conclusively glancing off an advertisement hanging some 30 feet above and eight feet in front of the right-field fence.

“How can the ball hit the top, come back down and then go forward again to the [sign on the outfield fence]?” Acta asked. “It’s just unexplainable.”

Vanover, though, said the replays he and his crew mates saw showed the ball changing directions, the definitive action that said to them it struck the overhang and should be ruled a home run.

“It was a very difficult call,” Vanover said after the game. “When you look at the replay, you can see the ball does disappear into the yellow sign, and it does change direction. That’s how we made the call.”

Things spiraled downward from there, with relievers Kip Wells and Jesus Colome combining to allow two more runs to score and give the Mets plenty of cushion to secure a series sweep and hand Washington its 15th loss in 18 days.

Santana (7-2) allowed just one hit and struck out seven through three innings. It seemed no one had a chance against him, and then Dunn changed all that with one titanic blast.

With a man on and no outs in the fourth, he turned on a Santana offering and belted it 465 feet to right-center field, past both teams’ bullpens, past a seating area and onto a concourse that doesn’t figure to get peppered with baseballs very often.

Then Santana fell apart. He wound up allowing a single and then issued three walks, one to the opposing pitcher and then another to Cristian Guzman (who had drawn only two walks this season at the time) with the bases loaded.

So the Nationals suddenly had tied the game 3-3, giving Zimmermann new life in an attempt to win for the first time in six outings. The rookie right-hander did a nice job settling down after a shaky start, but he suffered his own meltdown in the sixth and the result was another loss for a Nationals club that keeps finding new ways to endure the same frustrating result.

“I don’t know what angles they had,” Zimmermann said. “But all of us don’t think it was a home run.”

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