Wednesday, September 21, 2005

For sheer drama and compelling story lines, this was about as good as it has been all year for the Washington Nationals. There was the heat of the pennant race, the allure of Barry Bonds at RFK Stadium, a masterful pitching performance from Livan Hernandez and the memory of back-to-back crushing losses in San Diego over the weekend.

The only thing missing for the Nationals was the happy ending.

A heartbreaking 4-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants overshadowed anything else that played out last night before 32,403. Washington’s third straight loss, all having come in similar fashion, was yet another serious blow to this fading ballclub’s slim playoff hopes.

The Nationals (77-74) now have to make up five games on the wild-card leading Houston Astros, with only 11 to play. It’s nearly an impossible task, one that would have been much easier had this team been able to close out its last three games.

“We’ve been playing good baseball,” left fielder Brad Wilkerson said. “It’s just late in the games that aren’t going our way right now. One pitch here, one pitch there, we might have eight [wins] in a row instead of three losses in a row.”

There will be plenty of what-ifs to occupy the Nationals’ minds over a long winter, and last night’s loss [-] in which Hernandez surrendered a three-run homer to Moises Alou with two outs in the ninth [-] will be right near the top.

It had all the potential to be a much-needed uplifting victory for this downtrodden bunch. Hernandez had one of his best performances in months, holding the Giants to one run (Bonds’ upper-deck, solo homer in the fourth) and three hits over eight innings. And when he took the mound for the ninth he owned a 2-1 lead and a chance to close out the game without having to face Bonds again.

But Hernandez retired only two of San Francisco’s first three batters, walking Omar Vizquel with one out, and that brought Bonds to the plate and changed the entire complexion of this game.

Nationals manager Frank Robinson strolled to the mound, not to remove Hernandez but to instruct him not to give Bonds anything good to hit on the inside part of the plate.

“I want to pitch to him,” Hernandez said of his encounter with the feared slugger. “I don’t want to walk him. I want to pitch outside. I don’t want to give him anything to hit to right field.”

Hernandez didn’t even give the man with 706 career homers anything to swing at. He walked him on four pitches, an unintentional intentional walk that put the tying run on second and brought Alou to the plate.

The Giants cleanup hitter needed to see just one pitch from Hernandez [-] a slider over the plate [-] to turn this game around. He crushed it over the left-field fence, a three-run shot that turned Washington’s 2-1 lead into a 4-2 deficit and sucked all the life out of RFK.

“We know Alou as well as we know Bonds,” Robinson said. “And we know he is a very dangerous hitter, especially on the first pitch. We didn’t make a good pitch.”

Added Wilkerson, who tried in vain to chase down Alou’s game-winner: “When you put Barry back in the lineup and you’ve got Moises hitting behind him, that’s two of the most clutch hitters in this game. You’ve got to pick your poison. And the one we picked tonight, it just didn’t work out.”

The Nationals staged one last furious rally in the ninth against Giants closer Armando Benitez. With one out, Vinny Castilla doubled, and Brian Schneider and Ryan Church drew walks to load the bases.

Robinson called upon rookie Ryan Zimmerman to pinch-hit, and the 2005 first-round draft pick worked the count full before lofting a fly ball to left field deep enough to score pinch-runner Brandon Watson from third.

“I guess you could say I did part of the job,” said Zimmerman, satisfied with the sacrifice fly but wishing he had singled in two runs instead.

With two outs, the pressure now was on Wilkerson, who had driven in the Nationals’ second run earlier in the game. He took a strike, then a ball, then sent a tailing line drive to left that brought the crowd to its feet. Had the hobbling Bonds still been in the game, “we would have lost,” he admitted.

But defensive replacement Todd Linden twisted and turned and made a diving grab of the sinking liner, much to Wilkerson’s chagrin, and sealed the latest in a growing list of Nationals heartbreakers.

“When he started getting turned around, I thought ‘Wow, we might win this game,’ ” Wilkerson said. “It took the wind out of me a little bit. But he made a great play on it.”

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