- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 1, 2009

— On nights like these, when the Washington Nationals’ margin for error is so thin, it isn’t surprising that they lose to a team that’s almost as far down in the standings as they are. It isn’t surprising when they fall despite getting four hits from the likes of Pete Orr, Wil Nieves and Livan Hernandez, and it certainly isn’t surprising when Hernandez throws a complete game that nonetheless results in defeat.

The Nationals are just in one of those stretches, which they’ve become very familiar with this season, in which the margin for error is too thin for anything to go wrong. They might not be lasting as long under interim manager Jim Riggleman as they did under former manager Manny Acta, but the DNA remains the same.

It was there again Monday night in a game the Nationals lost 3-1 to the San Diego Padres despite getting enough little contributions to put them in position to win for the first time in four games. As many things as the Nationals did right, they counteracted them just enough to lose.

Despite Hernandez allowing three runs in eight innings, Washington dropped its fourth straight on the basis of a spectacular catch, an uncharacteristic mistake and a sheer lack of offense from its top three hitters.

“We continue to play good baseball,” Riggleman said. “It’s just going that way against us. If there’s a close call, it’s not going our way. We’re in one of those ruts. But we’ve got to stop that. We cannot let that continue the way it did in the first half.”

Hernandez tried his best to curtail the losing streak, rebounding impressively after a rough first inning.

He allowed hits to three of the Padres’ first four batters and walked Will Venable after San Diego’s opening surge. But he got a double play to end the inning and set down 15 of the next 17 batters he faced, sending them flailing prematurely at his curveball.

He gave up one more run on a pinch-hit homer to Chase Headley in the eighth. But his biggest mistake didn’t come on the mound. It came at the plate.

A solid hitter and easily the most accomplished offensive threat on the Nationals’ pitching staff, Hernandez already had a run and a hit when he came up with the bases loaded and one out in the fourth inning.

But instead of swinging away, he tried to push a bunt and bring across Elijah Dukes for the tying run. Instead, he tapped back to Padres pitcher Tim Stauffer, triggering a crushing 1-2-3 double play.

“We were hoping to get something out of that. He’s a pretty good hitter,” Riggleman said. “He decided to bunt. That kind of took everybody by surprise. That being the case, he didn’t bunt it where he wanted to bunt the ball. If he had to do it over, I’m sure he’d swing the bat.”

A lifetime .227 hitter, Hernandez said he’s routinely bunted in similar situations throughout his career when his team has a chance to tie the game. But Stauffer’s cut fastball dived just enough that Hernandez couldn’t square it up.

“The pitch he threw me, it was down and very nasty,” Hernandez said. “It looked like a spring training play. We do that all the time.”

With their 3-4-5 combo of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham continuing to struggle (Zimmerman’s two-out double in the fifth was the trio’s only hit), the Nationals had to subsist on the crumbs of offense generated by the bottom half of the order.

Still, their one other chance to tie the game quickly evaporated in the seventh.

Nieves was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double, and Willie Harris’ one-on, one-out drive to the left field wall was caught by converted first baseman Oscar Salazar, who crashed into the fence and left the game with a bruised left knee.

“You’ve got a first baseman playing the outfield right there. I thought for sure it was going to be a [hit],” Harris said. “He made a good play, kind of took the breath out of us right there. It was an amazing play.”

More than that, it was indicative of just what seems to be pushing back against the Nationals’ efforts right now.

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