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Nationals can't bail out Balester in loss

Nationals can't bail out Balester

WASHINGTON -- As Ryan Zimmerman stepped into the batter's box leading off the ninth inning with his team down, 2-1, a fan called out to the Nationals' third baseman.

"Come on, franchise," the fan said, trying to will Washington's budding superstar to bring a brief reprieve to a season burdened with injuries and offensive futility. Zimmerman hit the ball hard to the left side, and while he tried mightily to beat the throw, it was not to be -- a microcosm of Washington's season.

Though they broke a 26 1/3-inning scoreless drought, the Nationals could muster only the lone run in a 2-1 loss to the Phillies on Tuesday, wasting the longest outing of Collin Balester's short Major League career.

The 22-year-old right-hander pitched six innings, allowing just two runs on Chase Utley's home run in the third. He struck out five and threw 62 of his 93 pitches for strikes. Yet neither his start nor the bullpen's extension of its scoreless-innings streak to 10 could carry the Nationals to victory.

Manager Manny Acta praised the greenest of his young starters. He said Balester's ability to throw a good changeup and locate all of his pitches made the righty effective on Tuesday night.

"He looked outstanding to me out there," Acta said. "He threw every one of his pitches for strikes, and that changeup just continued to be a good pitch for him. They loaded up that lineup with lefties against him, and he pitched a tremendous game for us."

For his part, Balester said he threw more changeups in his start on Tuesday than he has in any other appearance, characterizing the start as one of his "better performances of the year."

"Everything was kind of just rolling," Balester said. "For the most part, all my pitches were working. My changeup was my go-to pitch tonight, actually, keeping guys a little bit off balance, helping me out a lot."

The Phillies marked the scoreboard in the third inning, when Utley followed a Jimmy Rollins single with a home run to right field, his 26th of the year. Utley flirted with home runs twice more, pushing Austin Kearns to the warning track in right field in the first and sixth innings.

Brett Meyers effectively shut down Washington for the visiting Phillies, allowing just four hits, one unearned run and two walks over seven-plus innings.

Admittedly pressing to help his team break what is now a seven-game losing streak, Zimmerman committed a baserunning gaffe that cost Washington a two-out opportunity in the seventh. With Zimmerman on first, Lastings Milledge hit a hard liner to third that ricocheted off Eric Bruntlett's glove toward Rollins at short.

Both Bruntlett and Rollins moved for the ball, and Zimmerman turned at second with third base uncovered. Yet Bruntlett recovered the ball before Zimmerman could make a decision, and Utley snuck in behind the Nationals third baseman, who was caught trying to retreat to second.

After the game, Zimmerman said that he immediately went to Acta to apologize.

"With two outs, there's really no reason to do that there," Zimmerman said. "It's just a dumb mistake. You can't let that kind of stuff happen there. You learn from it and move on."

The Nationals tallied their run in the eighth, when pinch-runner Cristian Guzman scored on a ground ball to third by Willie Harris. Felipe Lopez advanced from second to third on the play, but Ronnie Belliard was unable to capitalize on Washington's best chance to even the score, grounding to second to end the inning.

All season, Washington has talked about the club's potential, if only key players weren't injured. Many of those players have returned and the offense has not markedly improved, but Acta said his team needs a little more time to find its offensive rhythm.

"It's only been a couple of games," Acta said. "They probably need a few more at-bats to get into the swing of things."

Both Milledge and Zimmerman said that they don't feel completely comfortable yet, not because of lingering pain but simply because nothing can replace in-game experience.

"There's no substitute for simulated game speed and getting into game shape and actually playing every day," Zimmerman said. "On the other hand, none of us are going to come back if we don't feel like we can help the team. We don't use any excuses. We're all back, and we feel like we should be playing better."

Zach Osterman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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