Ayala Implodes, Nats Lose 6-4

Posted by Dave Nichols | Thursday, July 24, 2008 | , , , , | 0 comments »

San Francisco--The Washington Nationals took a precarious 4-3 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning against the home-standing San Francisco Giants Wednesday night, and turned the game over to set-up man Luis Ayala as scripted. But as Ayala has done much of the season, he struggled, got behind in the count, walked a man, and surrendered three earned runs to erase the lead and lose the game 6-4.

Ayala (1-6, 5.77) was called on to start the eighth inning and had trouble from the start. The first batter he faced, Nats killer Bengie Molina (lifetime .400 hitter against the franchise) lead off with a solid single to left center, completing an 3-for-4 night for him. D.C. native Emmanuel Burriss then pinch-ran for the sloth-like Molina and promptly stole second. Ayala issued a four-pitch walk to first baseman John Bowker, and after a eight pitch at bat, despite falling behind 0-2, Rich Aurilia finally found a pitch to handle: a hanging breaking ball right down Broadway The veteran hammered the offering to straight-away center field for a two-run double, wresting the lead away. Omar Vizquel, hitting just .183 in this, his 21st big league season, followed with his own double to center, and it was all over but the crying for the Nats. Ayala was allowed to remain on the hill to get the final two outs, but the damage was done.

Washington tried to mount a response in the ninth inning as Ryan Zimmerman (3-for-5) singled with one out and Jesus Flores was hit with a pitch with two outs. But Kory Casto, pinch-hitting for Ayala, could not deliver the blow that would tie the game up to force extras, as he struck out against the Giants All Star closer Brian Wilson.

The Nats actually had a late-inning lead to protect thanks to a three-run inning of their own. Against tiring Giants starter Kevin Correia in the sixth, Austin Kearns singled to lead off, and on the very next pitch, catcher Jesus Flores drilled a pitch to the left field bleachers for his sixth home run of the season, and team leading 41st and 42nd RBIs. Several batters later, pinch-hitter Johnny Estrada singled to center, driving in Ryan Langerhans, who was aboard via a double to right field. Red-hot Willie Harris (2-for-5) followed with a single to put two on with two outs, and Manager Bruce Bochy finally went to his pen for lefty Alex Hinshaw. Hinshaw, one of several rookies in Bochy's bullpen, calmly got All Star Cristian Guzman to ground into a fielder's choice to end the inning without further damage. As it turned out, Hinshaw may have won the game right there.

Collin Balestar started for the Nationals and despite some early struggles settled down to pitch fairly well overall. He went five full innings, allowing three earned runs on six hits and two walks, striking out two. Steven Shell, Charlie Manning and Saul Rivera all followed with shutout performances through the sixth and seventh innings before Ayala came on. Giants rookie Geno Espineli, making just his second appearance since his recall last week, pitched two-thirds of an inning to earn the victory, and Wilson recorded his 27th save of the season.

The Nats finish the series with San Francisco, hoping to avoid the sweep, at 3:35 eastern time today with Tim Redding (7-4, 4.17) on the hill. The Giants send out hard-luck starter Matt Cain (5-8, 4.08).

NATS NOTES: Washington has lost two in a row, and are 4-6 in their last 10 games. Overall, their record stands at 38-63, tied for worst in the majors, and 16 games behind Philadelphia and New York Mets, tied for first in the NL East.

CF Lastings Milledge, on the DL since June 28 with a right groin strain, has hit well during his minor league rehab stint with Triple-A Columbus and the team hopes to activate him during the series with the Los Angeles Dodgers this weekend.

GM Jim Bowden, on a talk radio appearance and later confirmed by other media sources yesterday, indicated the team would not tender P Chad Cordero a contract at the end of the season. Cordero, who apparently was not made aware of this before Bowden's public announcements, was surprised by the news. Cordero responded, "I'm shocked he would say it now and make it official. It's a bit upsetting. It's early. I understand that it's a business."

Photo (c) C. Nichols 2008.