Nationals Quieted By the Rockies

The Nationals' Nick Johnson tries to flip the ball back to first base while keeping his balance in the seventh inning.
The Nationals' Nick Johnson tries to flip the ball back to first base while keeping his balance in the seventh inning. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The way things have been going for the Washington Nationals, it would make sense that, as the ball cracked off Marlon Byrd's bat in the bottom of the ninth, the entire dugout would stand at attention, that the ball would carry and land softly over the fence, tying the score.

"I thought that ball," right fielder Jose Guillen said, "was gone."

Trailing the Colorado Rockies by a run, Byrd crouched along the first base line, hoping his slump would end -- and a night of frustration would be over -- if the ball carried out to left. Alas, "I saw it was hooking," he said, and indeed, it caromed off the wall in left, a few feet left of the foul pole, the ball that prevented the Nationals from staging a dramatic comeback in what became a 4-3 loss to the Rockies in front of an announced crowd of 20,633 at RFK Stadium.

Thus, the surging Nationals were stalled for a moment -- a victim of their own former utility man, Jamey Carroll, who went 3 for 5 -- and they lost the first of four games with Colorado in part because their offense was largely listless. Before Guillen managed to provide hope with a solo homer and Byrd narrowly missed making life miserable for Rockies closer Brian Fuentes, who had blown a save the day before, they managed just four hits against Rockies left-hander Jeff Francis and two other relievers, an offensive output far different than that which they had become accustomed during a period in which they won nine times in 11 games.

Problems? Start at the top. The Nationals' first three hitters -- Alfonso Soriano, Royce Clayton and Jose Vidro -- went a combined 0 for 12 with four strikeouts.

"One, two, three," Manager Frank Robinson said. "If you don't get anything out of those guys, it makes it tough."

Robinson has said, as the Nationals played better baseball the last three weeks, that the offense seems to disappear when Soriano doesn't provide a spark, and last night was no different. The left fielder, on a tear as recently as last week, struck out three times and is 2 for his last 17 to drop his average to .298. Vidro, too, has fallen into a funk, and his 0-for-4 night made him 3 for his last 25. Once the National League's leading hitter, Vidro's average now is at .308, the lowest it has been all season, and he said after last night's game that he can't figure out why.

"If I knew, man, I wouldn't be doing it," Vidro said. "I have a lot of confidence in myself. I know I'm going to get out of it. Hopefully, I don't have to wait a lot longer."

Guillen, in just his second start after returning from the disabled list with a strained right hamstring, had the Nationals' only RBI, first with a single in the second and then with the homer to right off Fuentes in the ninth, just his fifth at RFK in his two seasons here. "It's a good sign," said Robinson, noting that Guillen drove the ball the opposite way.

"I'm able to put some weight on the back leg," said Guillen, who is 4 for 6 with two doubles, a homer and four RBI in his two starts since returning. "Legs are very important for hitters, and I'm just using it right now. It's something I was not able to do when I was here at the beginning of the season."

Nationals right-hander Ramon Ortiz, likewise, did something he was unable to do at the beginning of the season. "What he did was keep us in the ballgame," Robinson said.

In going winless in his first seven starts, Ortiz only twice gave up less than four earned runs, and his ERA ballooned to a beefy 6.30. But in winning his five starts before last night, Ortiz hadn't given up more than three earned runs even once, posting a 3.03 ERA.

Last night, though, he struggled through a first inning in which he needed 28 pitches, and he never seemed to get rolling. Handed a 2-0 lead, he gave it back in the fifth on Clint Barmes's run-scoring triple and an RBI groundout by Carroll. And in the sixth, the Rockies took a 3-2 lead when JD Closser fisted a broken-bat single up the middle. Tack on a run in the seventh -- one driven in by Todd Helton's slow, ground-ball single off reliever Mike Stanton -- and Ortiz had something of a frustrating 6 2/3 -inning outing in which he allowed four runs.

"Nothing you can do about that," said Ortiz, who fell to 5-5. "Nothing I can change. I don't want to think about that game."

Nor do most of the Nationals. One element of their recent good play is their ability to minimize the down times, and they have lost consecutive games just once in their last 25 outings. So when Byrd scorched that ball to left in the ninth, when the brief period of hope bounced off the wall instead, they picked up their gear and pledged to get rolling again tonight.

"We were up the whole game," Byrd said. "This team's feeling good, and we're going to battle back tomorrow."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company