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Late rally comes up short in St. Louis

Late rally comes up short for Nationals

ST. LOUIS -- The Nationals have been playing good baseball the last two weeks, so it was no surprise that they managed to mount a comeback against the Cardinals on Saturday night. It fell short, however, as they lost, 8-6, to snap their four-game winning streak.

It was a game in which Nationals manager Manny Acta showed his emotions for the first time in public.

Washington was trailing, 8-3, when the Cardinals' bullpen allowed the Nationals to creep closer in the late innings. In the eighth, with Ryan Franklin on the mound, pinch-hitter Tony Batista hit a fly ball to left field to drive in Jesus Flores and draw the Nats within four runs.

Right-hander Kelvin Jimenez started the ninth inning for St. Louis, and that's when things got a bit strange. In the pouring rain at Busch Stadium, Jimenez was able to get Cristian Guzman on a groundout. Acta then became upset at home-plate umpire Charlie Reliford for calling Ryan Zimmerman out on strikes. The 2-2 pitch appeared to be outside the strike zone, and the TV cameras panned on Acta voicing his displeasure toward Reliford in the dugout.

Asked if Reliford was rushing to get the game over with, Acta declined comment.

"I'm not here to evaluate umpires," Acta said.

But Zimmerman confirmed that Acta was upset over the call.

"He was upset, obviously. I think he thought it was a ball, too," Zimmerman said. "He was just sticking up for his players. We fought back, and we were in the game. It was starting to rain pretty hard. I don't [know if Reliford was in a rush]. I was trying to get a pitch to hit. He called strike three. That's not up to me to say that."

Reliford was not available for comment.

But Reliford's call did not keep the Nationals from making the game close. Jimenez was still on the mound when Austin Kearns doubled over the head of first baseman Albert Pujols to score Ryan Church.

Closer Jason Isringhausen entered the game and surrendered an RBI single to Dmitri Young.

Jesus Flores then came to the plate, and that's when Reliford put a halt to the game because of rain.

During the delay, which lasted one hour and 42 minutes, the Nationals were in the clubhouse, believing they could win the game.

"We were hanging out. Everybody was positive," Kearns said. "We are all thinking that Flo was going to hit his first homer. It's not like we are in here moping around. We were hanging loose."

Flores was taking swings in the indoor batting cage, thinking that there was no guarantee that Isringhausen would be back on the mound after the delay. Isringhausen did return, but Flores had a game plan: Look for the fastball on the outside part of the plate.

"When I saw him, I knew what he could throw," Flores said. "That's why I was ready to hit."

Flores battled, working the count to 3-2, but on the eighth pitch of the at-bat, he popped up to second baseman Adam Kennedy to end the game.

"I was looking to get the hit," Flores said. "I missed that pitch. That's why I was upset."

The reason the Nationals were behind the eight ball was the struggles of right-hander Levale Speigner. One thing is obvious about him: He is not a starter. He proved that once again on Saturday night.

Speigner, a quality long reliever, was put in Washington's rotation because right-hander Shawn Hill was placed on the disabled list with a sore left shoulder and right elbow on May 14.

In his third start of the season, Speigner lasted just 3 1/3 innings, giving up eight runs on eight hits. In his three starts, Speigner has yet to go past the fourth inning.

He was given a 1-0 lead in the first inning, thanks to a Ryan Church RBI single, but the Cardinals took the lead for good in the bottom of the frame, when Jim Edmonds hit a two-run single.

In the fourth inning, the Cardinals made it an 8-1 game by scoring five runs.

Acta went so far as to say that the Nationals will reevaluate Speigner's role in the rotation and may have to look elsewhere. Speigner is a Rule 5 Draft pick, so it's highly unlikely that he will go to the Minor Leagues or be sent back to the Twins. The likely scenario is have him return to the bullpen.

The only other reliever on the 25-man roster who could start is Billy Traber, but Acta feels that Traber is best suited to be a reliever. Traber was unsuccessful as a starter for Washington last year.

"It was not a very good outing. Speigner put a lot pf stress to our bullpen," Acta said. "We have five days, and we have to address the situation and see what the alternative will be."

Three Washington relievers -- Traber, Winston Abreu and Ray King -- combined to prevent the game from being a complete blowout, shutting out the Cardinals for 4 2/3 innings.

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

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