'Uninspired' Nationals Can't Overcome Marlins

Florida Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez dives in vain as the Nationals' Alfonso Soriano singles to lead off the eighth. Soriano later was picked off first base.
Florida Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez dives in vain as the Nationals' Alfonso Soriano singles to lead off the eighth. Soriano later was picked off first base. (By Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)
By Preston Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 9, 2006

The Washington Nationals ventured into their post-Livan Hernandez existence last night knowing they will have to coax innings from unimpressive starters and a questionable bullpen to slog their way through the rest of the season.

If a 4-2 home loss to Florida -- in which right-hander Tony Armas Jr. continued falling behind hitters, three Nationals committed errors and the batting order squandered a one-out, bases-loaded opportunity -- is any indication of the next seven weeks, Manager Frank Robinson might become even less charitable than he was after last night's game.

"The ballgame was not a good ballgame. Period," he said. "A very uninspired, lack-of-energy type game. No execution. Period."

Armas actually turned in one of his better performances of late, and three relievers threw scoreless innings to kick off the 10-game homestand, highlighted by the return of left fielder Alfonso Soriano, who despite persistent trade rumors returned to Washington as a National following a lengthy road trip.

Soriano received a warm, glad-you're-still-here ovation from the crowd in his first at-bat. "I think that they're happy they see me, and I'm so happy they're happy to see me, too," he said. But the main concern now is the departure of Hernandez, dealt Monday to Arizona for two minor league pitchers.

It was a swap whose timing surprised some. Hernandez had remained with Washington after the July 31 trade deadline, and the assumption was that he would finish the season with the team.

"Waiver-wire trades become a little more of a shock because you really don't know when it's going to happen," Nationals catcher Brian Schneider said. "You have all this lead-up and expectations for the trade deadline and once it's past you don't think too much is going to happen."

Hernandez's departure means Robinson must cobble together a rotation minus his most reliable starter, and Armas needing 104 pitches -- 45 of them balls -- to survive six innings was not an encouraging sign.

Left-hander Billy Traber will start in Hernandez's spot in the rotation Friday at home against the Mets.

"He's going to be missed very much, absolutely," Robinson said of Hernandez. "It's not just the innings he gives you, it's the idea of knowing when he goes to the mound what you're going to get. Ninety-nine percent of the time you got exactly what you felt like you would get from him, which is usually pretty good."

Armas (7-8) has not gained similar trust. He had worked more than five innings once in his seven previous starts but he went longer, giving up nine hits and four runs, two earned. He struck out four and walked two.

But as Armas's pitch count rises in the early innings, so does Robinson's ire.

"He's been this way all year, basically throwing a lot of pitches," Robinson said. "Tonight, maybe he threw one first-strike pitch, or two at the most. I don't know what it comes from. He knows it; he's been made aware of it. [We] can't make him throw the ball over the plate. I don't know what it is."

"He got out of some situations, but tonight was a night where he didn't really throw a lot of his off-speed [pitches] for strikes," Schneider said, "and when that happens he's going to throw a lot of pitches. He just fell behind and we were always working back to get even in the count. They hit some fastballs when we were behind."

Chris Schroder, who in making his major league debut became the 26th pitcher to appear for the Nationals this season, threw a perfect seventh, and Jon Rauch and Ryan Wagner also turned in scoreless relief innings.

Even though two of the runs were unearned, the shaky defense did bail out Armas on occasion, turning double plays in the second and fifth innings. And Soriano threw out a runner at third in the first inning to record his major league-leading 18th outfield assist.

The Nationals managed only five hits off Florida rookie Ricky Nolasco (10-7), who pitched into the seventh. He left the game after giving up a leadoff double to Nick Johnson, a single to Austin Kearns and a sacrifice to Marlon Anderson.

Pinch hitter Alex Escobar drew a full-count walk off reliever Taylor Tankersley to load the bases, but Schneider and pinch hitter Luis Matos struck out to end the inning.

"I think [Nolasco] got better as the game went on," said Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who went 0 for 3. "His stuff started to get better; he started to get ahead. I think we missed an opportunity to get him early in the game, because his stuff wasn't as good."

Washington scored its runs on solo homers by Ryan Church in the third and Johnson in the fourth, their sixth and 17th of the season, respectively. Johnson's double in the seventh, his 35th of the season, tied his career high.

Soriano, who all but bid Washington goodbye before the team left on its West Coast road trip, figuring he would be traded before the team came back home, got thrown out trying to steal third and was picked off first after he singled to lead off the eighth.

"You can't [get picked off] in that situation," Robinson said. "That run means nothing."

Joe Borowski picked up his 23rd save by retiring Kearns, Anderson and Escobar in order in the ninth.

Florida scored single runs in the first, third, fourth and sixth innings, including a home run by Dan Uggla in the third. Miguel Cabrera went 3 for 4 with two doubles.

Although Armas's outing was passable by his recent standards and the bullpen sturdy on this night, the Nationals know replacing Hernandez will take some doing.

"You just don't lose a guy like Livo and just get over it overnight," Robinson said. "It takes time. And it's going to take more than just the rest of this year. That's how important he was to this team.

"This gives some other people some opportunities to show us what they can do and how they'll handle this thing. That's what it does. But I don't want them to go out and think they have to take up for what Livo would have done. I want them to do what they're capable of doing. No more, no less."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company