- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 24, 2011

LOS ANGELES — Chad Billingsley was falling apart. Ripe for the taking. One fat pitch away from allowing the Washington Nationals to blow open the series’ rubber match and all with no outs in the first inning Sunday at Dod-ger Stadium.

Or at least that’s the way it appeared when the first four Nationals reached base against the Los Angeles right-hander. But Billingsley focused. He struck out Jayson Werth, Rick Ankiel and Jesus Flores, escaping the inning allowing just one run. He would never find himself in trouble again.

After an RBI single by Michael Morse, the Nationals did not tally another hit against Billingsley or two relievers in a 3-1 loss..

After the first inning, only one of the next 28 batters reached base. Washington contributed to its demise by striking out 13 times.

“We should have busted him in that first inning,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “We didn’t put the ball in play after bases loaded, nobody out. That hurts.

“I thought we were going to bust it open in that first inning. Had the right guys up, and evidently Mr. Billingsley had something else in mind. He pitched a heck of a ballgame.”

It was the imperfect end to a 3-6 road trip, four losses coming by one run. Still, Sunday’s defeat was perhaps the strangest.

Billingsley threw 38 pitches in the first inning, walking leadoff man Roger Bernadina and hitting Danny Espinosa before surrendering two singles. There was every reason to believe that the Nationals would break the game open.

But Billingsley lasted seven innings, walked two and struck out 10. It took him 77 pitches to get through the rest of his unblemished day after throwing almost half that many in the first inning.

“We definitely didn’t play up to our standards or the standards of the owner or the GM, the manager, anybody,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “We’re letting a lot of people down right now. We’ve got to be better than this.

“Me personally, I think that the energy is down. We’re not playing the same brand of baseball that we were when came out of the gates.”

Sunday’s contest turned on one sequence.

With Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp on base, third baseman Aaron Miles laced a two-out RBI single up the middle. As Kemp blazed around third, second baseman Espinosa unleashed a throw to catcher Jesus Flores that appeared to be in time, but Flores bobbled the ball and his subsequent throw to second in an attempt to get Miles bounced short.

When the play was over, the Dodgers had secured the only lead they would need. Combined with three stolen bases, it made for a lamentable day for Flores, who is still adjusting to a role as a backup.

“I’ve been struggling throwing to the bases,” he said. “The runners are taking good jumps on me. I think we’re not doing a very good job holding the runner, and it’s making it tougher for me. Tougher because I have to make perfect throws on the bases. I think it’s part of the game. Just keep working, and hopefully it’ll change soon.”

The Nationals, who have lost nine of their past 13, came out of the All-Star break with a bright outlook. The trip began with three tough games against NL East rival Atlanta but then take them to two of baseball’s worst teams. It seemed an opportunity to make headway toward the first winning season in Nationals history.

Instead, they failed to win a series. Now they head home for three straight series against divisional foes looking at the trip as a disappointment.

“No question about it,” Johnson said. “I had high hopes coming out, and I know a lot of the guys did. We’re just not getting it done. I know the effort’s there, but we just didn’t swing the bats when we needed to. We’ll get it right. Go home, get a little home cooking, we’ll be fine.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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