By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson would've liked to have sat back in the dugout last night at RFK Stadium, set aside the mounting concerns about his last-place team and admired another outstanding effort by Ramon Ortiz, his most reliable starting pitcher of late.
Instead, in a fitful evening highlighted by Atlanta's robust hitting, Robinson saw very little of Ortiz and a whole lot of Chipper Jones and Matt Diaz.
Jones smashed home runs in three consecutive at-bats, Diaz collected hits in his first four at-bats to tie a National League record and by the time the Braves' 10-4 demolition of the Nationals was complete, Ortiz's deficient effort had been long forgotten by the thinning crowd of 21,550.
What was wrong with Ortiz, who had gone at least six innings in his previous five starts but didn't make it through the fifth last night?
"Nothing," Robinson said. "Seriously. He just didn't have his good stuff and didn't get ahead of hitters so he could mix up his pitches to be able to be effective. He just didn't really have his good command.
"You're dealing with human beings and they are going to have off nights, they are going to have off games. It just wasn't his night. You're not dealing with machines; a human being can't do that."
Perhaps not, but Jones and Diaz offered machine-like precision.
Jones, who had come off the disabled list Sunday, homered in the fifth, sixth and eighth innings -- the last one a massive drive off Travis Hughes into the upper deck in right field -- and finished with five RBI.
Diaz homered in the second inning and then singled in the fourth, fifth and seventh to equal the NL mark for hits in consecutive at-bats (10). The streak set a franchise record and moved him within two of the major league standard accomplished by Boston's Pinky Higgins in 1938 and Detroit's Walt Dropo in '52.
In his final appearance, however, Diaz bounced out to shortstop, concluding a memorable night in which he also had four RBI and raised his batting average to .351.
Ten players in NL history had recorded 10 straight hits, most recently Bip Roberts in 1992.
Robinson had been appreciative of Ortiz's effort in recent weeks, a stretch that included three victories and a no-decision and, in his previous two starts, three earned runs allowed in 12 2/3 innings.
Ortiz (9-10) yielded Jones's first homer, a two-run drive to left-center field that broke a 3-3 tie in the fifth, and then proceeded to allow consecutive doubles by Andruw Jones and Brian McCann.
"Chipper is a good hitter, but the way you have to look at it, everybody can hit on this team," said Ortiz, who made his briefest appearance since lasting only 4 1/3 innings against the Yankees two months ago.
He later gave up Diaz's third hit, an RBI single to left after intentionally walking Adam LaRoche (.266) for the second straight inning.
Chipper Jones homered off Ryan Wagner in the sixth and then off Hughes in the eighth.
"He's on fire right now," Hughes said. "Chipper is Chipper. He's a great hitter. What can you do?"
In years past, an August visit by the Braves meant facing a team on its way to another division title. This season, however, the Braves have failed to rebound from their poor start and continue to struggle to stay ahead of the last-place Nationals in the NL East, dooming their hopes of a 15th divisional championship and, for all practical matters, a playoff berth.
The Nationals got off to a good start in their pursuit of the fourth-place Braves, taking the lead in the first on Austin Kearns's RBI single. Ortiz, however, ran into trouble in the second -- and it came after easily retiring the first two batters.
His first mistake was walking LaRoche, the second error was a first-pitch offering that Diaz lifted into the Atlanta bullpen for his fifth home run of the season.
Diaz got to Ortiz again in the fourth inning, and again it came with two outs. Andruw Jones had led off with a double into the left-field corner and moved to third on a groundout. After a pop out and an intentional walk to LaRoche, Diaz dropped a single into left-center to provide a 3-1 lead.
The Nationals manufactured a pair of runs in their half of the fourth to tie the score, instigated by Bernie Castro's bunt single. Ortiz sacrificed him to second and Alfonso Soriano brought him home with a two-out single to right-center.
Soriano proceeded to steal second -- his 29th of the year -- and head to third when catcher McCann's throw skipped into center field. Felipe Lopez followed with a single up the middle, allowing Soriano to score easily and make it 3-3.
But Ortiz's night was over before the next half-inning ended.
Marcus Giles opened it with a single and, one out later, Chipper Jones, in his second game back from a strained oblique muscle, homered.
The problems continued. Andruw Jones and McCann clubbed back-to-back doubles to stretch the lead to 6-3. After a strikeout, Ortiz walked LaRoche again to get to Diaz -- big mistake. Diaz singled again, driving in McCann, to end Ortiz's forgettable evening.
"The effort was there, but when they are jumping on you and putting more runs on the board every inning, it's a little tough," Robinson said. "To keep the game close and give us an opportunity to put pressure on them, [Ortiz] has to be more conscious of his pitches, the type of pitches and where he's pitching."
UP NEXT Today vs. Braves, 7:05 p.m. Astacio (2-2, 5.56) vs. Cormier (2-3, 6.12) WWZZ-FM-104.1, WFED-1050, WAGE-1200 Tomorrow vs. Braves, 7:05 p.m. Traber (2-1, 5.14) vs. Smoltz (10-5, 3.41) WFED-1050, WAGE-1200, WTRI-1520