- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The scene in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park bordered on surreal as Tuesday afternoon spilled into evening.

Hip-hop music blasted from the stereo - the typical soundtrack of a victorious clubhouse - while Washington Nationals pitchers Scott Olsen and Garrett Mock detailed the pitches they made that kept Washington from winning.

Players packed their bags for a West Coast road trip without knowing exactly when or where the game they had just played would finish. Upon hearing the game against the Houston Astros would resume July 9 in the 11th inning with the Nationals as the home team at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman jokingly wondered, “Do we get to use the home clubhouse?”

But the strange situation wouldn’t have happened if Olsen and the Nationals’ beleaguered bullpen had been able to protect three different leads. Then Washington could have celebrated a win before the rains came and relocated their lost afternoon to Houston. They could have gone to the West Coast on their first three-game win streak of the year instead of leaving with the game tied 10-10 in extra innings.

But the Nationals’ strangest game of the year ended in limbo thanks to a bullpen that couldn’t seal the deal.

“Today was the battle of two struggling bullpens,” manager Manny Acta said. “We could have helped ourselves if we had played better defense. Our guys battled out there, put up some runs, and we just couldn’t come up on top.”

With the game tied in the bottom of the 11th, rain halted play for 76 minutes before the teams decided to call the game. When it resumes in Houston, Josh Willingham will be at bat with Elijah Dukes on first and one out. The teams will finish that game and then start their regularly scheduled four-game series.

“It’s one of [the most bizarre games I’ve played],” Olsen said. “I guess we go to Houston to finish it up. I don’t even know when we go to Houston.”

For five innings, the Nationals had done little against Houston ace Roy Oswalt, whose mid-90s fastball and aggressive approach kept Washington hitters making early-count outs.

But then Oswalt was forced to leave the game in the sixth after developing a bone bruise on his right hand, and the Nationals got a rare gift: They ran into a bullpen that has been almost as inept as theirs.

The nine relievers the Astros had used this year, through Monday, had already blown four saves, recorded a 4.55 ERA and issued 47 walks in 91 innings.

Their best reliever to date, Chris Sampson, suddenly couldn’t find the strike zone Tuesday - he entered the game with the Astros up 5-2 in the sixth, gave up a single to Zimmerman and proceeded to walk four of the next five batters. By the time Sampson left the game, the Nationals had tied the game. When Tim Byrdak, the Astros’ second-best reliever this year, gave up a single to Cristian Guzman and drilled Nick Johnson in the helmet with a pitch, the Nationals had an 8-6 lead.

The game became a battle to see which bullpen could kick away leads in more confounding fashion.

The Nationals gave back a three-run lead in the seventh when Julian Tavarez allowed three runs on a walk and a pair of hits. Garrett Mock gave up the lead in the eighth - he walked two batters, threw a wild pitch and gave up a run to Jeff Keppinger. Then Houston’s Geoff Geary gave up a two-run homer to Cristian Guzman that put Washington up 10-9.

But Kip Wells, after bailing out Mock in the eighth, couldn’t seal the deal. He gave up a leadoff double to Hunter Pence, who scored on a sacrifice fly two batters later.

By the time the carnage ended, there had been six lead changes. Only two of the eight pitchers who threw in the first nine innings for both teams escaped without giving up a run.

“It was kind of one of those games where both teams were going back and forth,” said Zimmerman, who extended his hitting streak to 23 games, a Nationals record. “Anytime you can’t hold it, it’s disappointing, but I think our bullpen’s going to be fine.”

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