By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 31, 2005
MIAMI, July 30 -- The day the Nationals took over first place seems so long ago. Back on June 5 the hits came, runners flew around the bases and going six innings without scoring wasn't too much for Washington to overcome against Florida pitcher A.J. Burnett. The Nationals knocked him out of the game with three runs in the bottom of the seventh, and Ryan Church leaned into a fastball one inning later that afternoon and sent a three-run homer soaring into RFK Stadium's right field bullpen to cap a 6-3 victory.
Afterward they hugged, slapped hands and lingered in the clubhouse, believing the whole season could run wonderfully along like this.
Saturday, in a different city against the same Marlins, the Nationals didn't linger in the clubhouse, instead scurrying to their lockers to get far, far away from the game that no longer seems fun.
This time they went seven innings without scoring on Burnett. This time they went without a hit over the final three innings and had just four hits altogether in losing, 3-0.
"I don't know what it is," Church said. "It's like we have a disease -- a can't-get-[anyone]- into-scoring-position disease."
He was asked if he remembered what it was like to hit a three-run home run and he laughed.
"A three-run home run?" he said. "How about a solo home run?"
National television had come to see the storyline of the season, the team that shrugged off adversity on its way to the top of the National League East. But by the time the Fox cameras were set up, that team had long disappeared.
On their way to losing their sixth game in a row and 18th of their last 23 the Nationals were barely a threat to Burnett -- ironically the pitcher who started against them on that June day that Washington moved into first place. They put up a meager attack in the first inning when Brad Wilkerson walked and Jamey Carroll was hit by a pitch. But a fly ball by Nick Johnson and groundouts by Vinny Castilla and Church ended the threat. And after that, Washington never had two runners on in the same inning and only got two players as far as second base.
Thus the offensive ineptitude of recent weeks dropped to an even lower level. At least in the other games they have lost lately they had runners on base. This time they couldn't even do that.
"We keep coming out thinking the next day is the day and it's not," said Carroll, Sunday's emergency starter at second base after Jose Vidro showed up unable to run with a muscle pull in his leg.
Across the room, John Patterson stood in front of his locker and pursed his lips. In 14 of his 19 starts this year he has given up two runs or less and has only four wins to show for the effort. He was asked if this was frustrating and he seemed unsure what to say, staring blankly into space for what seemed like almost 10 seconds.
"I'm pretty speechless at this point," he said. "I don't have an answer."
He was doomed in the bottom of the second, when catcher Brian Schneider threw wildly to third while attempting to catch Paul Lo Duca trying to advance on a wild pitch. The ball rolled into left field and the Nationals were down, 1-0. Patterson further damaged his chances with another wild pitch, this time in the sixth, that again brought Lo Duca home. They were the only runs he gave up in six innings, and for most pitchers that would be considered a brilliant outing. On this Washington team, right now, it was more than enough to lose.
"Everyone's trying their [rear end] off," Church said. "Everyone's trying, it's just not happening and when you go back to the dugout you say, '[Bleep], what's going on with this?' "
Then Church, the hero of that long-forgotten day less than two months ago, stood up in front of his locker.
"It's going to happen," he said. "It doesn't go on like this. Every team has their ups and downs, we're just going though this. It's better now than in August or September. Not that these aren't important now."
Down the hall, in a clubhouse where the stereo was turned to almost jet engine levels, the Marlins celebrated their victory. Back in June, when the Nationals had come back against them, the Marlins seemed lost in their own lethargy, so much so that the team tried desperately to trade Burnett and reportedly contemplated firing Manager Jack McKeon.
Now Florida is on the rise and the Nationals are toppling down the NL East standings, 4 1/2 games behind Atlanta and a mere half game ahead of third-place Florida.
"What they're going through is attrition," said Marlins closer Todd Jones, who posted his 20th save. "They're losing games the way they won them, a timely hit, a big pitch. They'll get it back."
Right now that's a hard thing to imagine.