Nats Go Quietly -- Again

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

CINCINNATI, May 23 -- Presumably, it will happen some day, maybe even in our lifetime. The Washington Nationals will lead off a game with, say, a double, then someone will single that man home, then another guy will hit a two-run homer, and the team's starting pitcher will take the mound staked to a nice lead. What a change it will be.

It hasn't yet happened. It certainly didn't happen Monday night, when Cincinnati left-hander Eric Milton was seemingly there for the taking. The struggles in the first few innings are wearing on a club that Monday dropped its fourth game in five outings, a 5-3 loss to the lowly Reds in which the Nationals didn't score until the sixth, when they were already trailing by five.

No lead. No real chance. When was the last time Esteban Loaiza -- Monday's starter, the man who has received the second-worst run support in the majors this season -- pitched with a lead?

"Spring training," Loaiza said.

Loaiza laughed at the thought, but the problem is serious for the pitching staff in particular. By contrast, Milton -- who entered the game with a 7.16 ERA, yet held the Nationals to six hits over eight innings -- was handed a 3-0 lead after two, a 5-0 lead after five, and relaxed nicely. Yes, he allowed late homers to Nick Johnson and pinch hitter Brendan Harris, just called up from the minors. But that was it.

"It puts an awful lot of pressure on our pitchers to hold the other teams down night after night after night after night," Manager Frank Robinson said, "and hope in the sixth, seventh inning, the eighth or ninth inning, we'll get something going and we'll score enough runs. That's tough."

When the Nationals strung together some gutsy come-from-behind wins in April and early May, they were hailed as resilient, and it rang true. But Robinson warned even then that their early-inning struggles couldn't last if the team was truly going to be successful. Now, they're haunting a club that is already working from a deficit because of injuries. In 45 games, the Nationals have scored just 10 first-inning runs, tied with Pittsburgh for fewest in the majors.

"We're putting ourselves in a corner and playing on the short end of a ballgame," Robinson said. "You're not always going to come through. Right now, we are struggling offensively. That makes it even tougher -- and that's why it's so important that we try to get something on the board early."

Milton would have been the perfect opponent to do that against. He entered the game 0-3 in May, when he posted a 7.66 ERA. He has allowed more homers than any pitcher in baseball. Yet he seemed to baffle the Nationals hitters -- several of whom are legitimately slumping -- by getting them to swing at breaking pitches out of the strike zone.

Take right fielder Jose Guillen, the most dangerous man remaining in the Nationals lineup, particularly with second baseman Jose Vidro on the disabled list with a sprained ankle and outfielder Brad Wilkerson taking time off to heal a strained forearm. Guillen went 0 for 4 and struck out three times against Milton, including with a runner on in the first and again in the eighth, when he stepped to the plate as the tying run.

"I'm sick to my stomach," Guillen said. "You understand? Sick. The way I'm swinging. Sick, sick, sick, like I want to throw up."

It was pointed out to Guillen that he isn't the only one unable to come through. He shot back that he didn't care.

"I don't think I should be hitting third," Guillen said. "I think I should be hitting ninth, behind the pitcher."

It wasn't a lineup-wide assessment, yet it seemed accurate, particularly the first time through the order. The Nationals are hitting .251 the first time they see a pitcher, .280 the second time through.

"It changes everything, when you're up early," said Marlon Byrd, who replaced Wilkerson in the leadoff spot. "You pitch with a lead, you pitch a little bit different. . . . We got to do something to score early."

The problem was exacerbated Monday night because for the first time all year, Loaiza (1-3) gave up as many as five runs, lasting just five innings. He admitted that he threw too many pitches over the plate, but wouldn't say the lack of run support was a problem.

"I just want to put zeroes up on the board," he said.

That, right now, is what the Nationals are hanging up every single night in the first. The solution?

"I don't know what it is," Robinson said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company