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05/01/09 12:39 AM ET

Bullpen falters in frustrating defeat

Nats relievers give up five to Cards in decisive ninth

WASHINGTON -- Once again, the Nationals bullpen didn't get the job done, allowing the tying and winning runs to score in Thursday's 9-4 loss to the Cardinals.

Going into the top of the seventh inning, the bullpen couldn't protect a 4-3 lead because it couldn't find the plate.

Left-hander Michael Hinckley was on the mound when he walked Ryan Ludwick with one out. Logan Kensing replaced Hinckley and didn't fare any better. Albert Pujols singled to left and Chris Duncan walked to load the bases. Rick Ankiel followed and hit a sacrifice fly to send home Ludwick to tie the score at 4.

Reliever Julian Tavarez pitched the ninth inning, and he didn't pitch like he did against the Phillies on Thursday. Again, the walks came back to bite the Nationals. Duncan led off with a free pass. Ankiel then plated Duncan with an RBI double down the left-field line.

It would get worse after that. With the bases loaded, Tyler Greene hit a slow roller toward Ryan Zimmerman, but the ball went past him and two runs scored on the play. Catcher Jesus Flores was charged with an error on the play when he couldn't handle a perfect throw from shortstop Cristian Guzman, which would retired Joe Thurston at the plate.

Reliever Joel Hanrahan entered the game and balked in another run. The last run was scored when Brian Barden hit a sacrifice fly to bring home Greene.

"Not very much worked out there for anybody today. It's not a secret that you can't walk guys. You have to go out there and throw strikes," Kensing said. "They have to hit the ball to beat us. We can't beat ourselves."

After the game, manager Manny Acta was baffled as to why his relievers were not throwing strikes.

"Walks allowed the Cardinals to tie the game, walks allowed them to take a lead," Acta said. "They didn't even hit the ball hard in the last inning, but they ended up scoring five runs. We walked 11 guys today. That's unacceptable.

"This is not Philadelphia, where a guy might be scared of throwing a pitch over the plate because the guy might hit it out. [Nationals Park] is a pretty fair ballpark. ... They are just walking themselves into trouble. Walking guys after getting the count to 0-2, walking guys in the bottom of the order -- you shouldn't be afraid."

Randy St. Claire has been the pitching coach of this franchise since 2003, and the bullpen was the least of his worries.

He had Chad Cordero, Jon Rauch and Luis Ayala as his reliable relievers, and they always threw strikes. However, they are no longer with the team. Now, St. Claire has to deal with relievers who seem unfamiliar with the job.

"We never had problems with the bullpen. Our bullpen has been pretty solid the past six years. This year, it is really scuffling," St. Claire said. "Young guys tend to feed off each other. When they are going well, they are all going well. And then when they are struggling, they try to do too much and they all scuffle. We have to get back at it and then they can get the job done."

Daniel Cabrera started for the Nationals. He lasted six innings and gave up three runs on four hits. He got off to a rough start, giving up a two-run homer to Pujols in the first inning.

But the Nationals got the two runs back in the bottom of the inning. Zimmerman hit a Mitchell Boggs offering over the right-center-field wall for a two-run homer. The hit extended Zimmerman's hitting streak to 19 games.

The game remained tied at 2 until the top of the fifth inning, when Colby Rasmus hit a sacrifice fly to send home Skip Schumaker.

The Nationals then took the lead in the bottom of the sixth inning off Boggs. Flores hit a triple, scoring Austin Kearns, and Flores scored the go-ahead run on a double by Anderson Hernandez.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.