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On Mound, at Plate, Nats Are No Match for Braves

Braves 11, Nationals 2

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page D01

ATLANTA, April 11 -- The hard part was figuring out which was worse, given the choices. Option A: The Washington Nationals' pitching, which featured a seven-run effort from starter Zach Day, who couldn't escape the fifth inning, the first of four pitchers who surrendered a season-high 15 hits. Or, try Option B: The Nationals' offense, which never collected back-to-back hits, which went meekly inning after inning against Atlanta Braves left-hander Mike Hampton.

There's no wrong choice, really. The easy part, then, is labeling Monday night's 11-2 loss to the Braves in front of 16,584 at Turner Field the worst outing of this young season. Sure, the Nationals lost two games at Florida over the weekend by the combined score of 17-0, but each of those contests was competitive into the late innings. This one was over as soon as Day threw his final pitch in the fifth, one which Andruw Jones launched over the left field fence for a 7-0 lead.

Nationals starter Zach Day wasn't at his best, surrendering seven runs in 41/3 innings against the Braves. (John Bazemore -- AP)

It left the Nationals with the first losing streak in their nascent history, albeit at a modest two games. It also left Manager Frank Robinson all but seething.

"This was not a pretty sight," he said. "This was not a good effort on this ballclub's part. I know we're better than this. We've had a couple of ugly innings in Florida, but this was an ugly ballgame -- period."

Well put. Day put the Nationals behind in the first by allowing a two-out, two-run double to Adam LaRoche. That was just the start. By the time Day finished his 4 1/3-inning stint, he had allowed a two-out RBI double to Raul Mondesi in the fourth, and then the crucial blows -- two-run homers to Jones and shortstop Rafael Furcal in the fifth.

"I didn't get the job done," Day said.

That much was obvious. What frustrated Robinson was how Day didn't get it done. Check the location of his pitches.

"Out of the strike zone, out of the strike zone, out of the strike zone," Robinson said. "And then, when he came in the strike zone, they weren't very good pitches. The location was terrible."

Robinson has little time for those kinds of problems. He said he wasn't happy with Day or any of three relievers -- Joey Eischen, T.J. Tucker and Joe Horgan.

"I can put up with you getting your brains beat out, because I know you can get better," Robinson said. "I cannot put up with ball one, ball two, ball three. . . . And that's what you saw tonight. Almost every hitter walked up there [ahead] 2-0."

There would be the case for the pitching being worse. But hang on a moment. Let Robinson get to the offense. The Nationals have lost three of four not because of their pitching, particularly the starters, but because the lineup simply can't seem to generate anything. The tally over those past four games: Opponents 30, Nationals 5.

"All of a sudden, we're going against clubs that are not clicking on all cylinders," Robinson said. "And they're shutting down our offense, and their offense is coming to life. It makes you very concerned. . . . We're not having good at-bats, good swings, aggressive swings. We're feeling for the ball. . . . I don't know why. Maybe guys are trying to do a little bit too much. Or maybe they're trying to just make contact -- period. But that's not the way to do it."

The Braves, naturally, showed the way to do it. Once Atlanta jumped on Day, Hampton settled in nicely, at one point retiring 15 of 16. "I was able to kind of get in a rhythm," he said.

Sure, the Nationals tipped their collective cap to Hampton, who improved to 2-0. But the veterans in the locker room echoed Robinson's frustration. In a division where the Nationals will face Dontrelle Willis one night, Josh Beckett two days later and Tim Hudson two days after that -- the stretch they're in right now -- they understand they can't just roll over the first time they see a tough breaking ball. The work, said center fielder Brad Wilkerson, has to come before the game, too.

"I think it's key in this division, with all the good pitchers," he said. "We're going to have to prepare before the game. It's going to be a little bit different. Some people aren't used to doing that as much, but I think it's a big part of getting ready for a game."

The clubhouse was quiet Monday night. Hudson awaited Tuesday. The pitchers could point fingers at the hitters. The hitters could point fingers at the pitchers. None of that happened.

"I haven't seen that energy the last couple games," second baseman Jose Vidro said. "So I'll make sure it's a different story tomorrow."

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