Nats Are Doomed From The Start

Nationals players tend to a prone Nick Johnson after his sixth-inning collision with Atlanta's Jeff Francoeur (7).
Nationals players tend to a prone Nick Johnson after his sixth-inning collision with Atlanta's Jeff Francoeur (7). (Photos By Gregory Smith -- Associated Press)

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006

ATLANTA, Aug. 26 -- Pedro Astacio walked off the mound under the bright sun Saturday afternoon, his body language full of dejection. His languid arms swung limply by his side, and just before he arrived at the dugout at Turner Field, he reached into his mouth, grabbed a flavorless wad of gum, and flung it angrily to his right, where it landed in the dirt. If only it were that easy to toss aside this endless nine-game road trip for the Washington Nationals, to dismiss the starting pitching that has doomed it.

"You get frustrated," Astacio said. "You have to figure out something for the next start."

The Nationals figured out nothing, enduring a 10-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves that was essentially over after Astacio -- who shut out the Braves on two hits just 11 days earlier -- allowed six runs before the third inning was over. Braves right-hander John Smoltz, who hadn't beaten the Nationals in three previous tries this year, countered with eight innings of three-hit, one-run ball, and it made for a tidy package that perfectly encapsulated this trip, on which the Nationals have lost six of eight.

"We just didn't play a good game all around," catcher Robert Fick said.

Yet any analysis -- even one including three more errors by the Nationals or how Smoltz set down the first 13 men he faced and 18 of the first 19 -- must start with Astacio, with the starting pitching. Keep in mind the Nationals' massive rebuilding project meant trading away staff stabilizer Livan Hernandez earlier this month, and that projected No. 2 starter John Patterson has thrown only 40 innings all season.

But the starters who are left are currently killing Washington. On this trip, which concludes Sunday, the rotation -- veterans Astacio, Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas Jr. along with minor league call-ups Jason Bergmann and Billy Traber -- are 1-5 with a 9.58 ERA. Four times in their last seven games, Nationals' starters have failed to get out of the third inning.

"It's very crippling," Manager Frank Robinson said. "It just tears your bullpen up, is what it does. It tears it up, wears 'em out. We don't have a bullpen designed for this type of workload."

Astacio was in trouble from the get-go, allowing six of the first seven men to reach base amid a four-run Braves first. It was the kind of performance that might lead a manager to yank a guy in the first inning, before the game gets away, a move that might send a message to his rotation that these outings aren't acceptable.

"I can say that, or do that, but then I'm battling all day trying to get to the end of the ballgame," Robinson said. "That's what happens. We don't have anybody that can go three, four, five innings."

Smoltz, meanwhile, didn't leave Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox with any such decisions. The Nationals have actually had success against the 39-year-old veteran of 19 major league seasons, winning each of the three games he started against them this year, leaving him with a 6.35 ERA. Not so Saturday. In the previous three starts, according to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals did a good job of laying off Smoltz's breaking pitches early in the count, driving his pitch count up. That changed in Smoltz's efficient 95-pitch outing.

"He was throwing us strikes early in the count," Zimmerman said. "Once he gets ahead, you got to guard against four pitches on both sides of the plate. It's pretty hard to do when he's throwing 95" mph.

Any drama was essentially sucked from the afternoon when Austin Kearns hit a one-out triple in the fifth, breaking up the perfect game. The only contentious moment thereafter came in the bottom of the sixth, when Atlanta's Jeff Francoeur hit what looked to be a harmless popup down the first base line.

Francoeur, in frustration, put his head down and started to run toward first. Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson went to make the play.

"I was looking straight at the ball," Johnson said. Francoeur, though, was looking at the ground. At the last minute, when he realized Johnson was in his path, Francoeur tried to pull up, but it was too late, and the two endured a violent collision, leaving them both splayed on the ground as so much debris.

"Obviously, I didn't mean to do that," Francoeur said. "It's just one of those things, a freak accident."

Johnson was diagnosed with a left cervical strain -- a case of whiplash, in layman's terms -- and is listed as day-to-day. He came out of the game and was clearly groggy afterward, but he agreed there was no malice on Francoeur's part.

"I don't think he did it on purpose," Johnson said.

Francoeur said he called Johnson after the game to say he didn't intend to run into him. Francoeur's shoulder hurts, and he might miss the series finale Sunday, too.

As Johnson dressed Saturday, outfielder Alex Escobar -- who dislocated his shoulder the night before, perhaps ending his season -- did so gingerly across the locker room. Astacio slipped on his clothes and headed out the door. And in between them, Traber pulled on his dress shirt, knowing that his start Sunday is the only thing standing between a trip-ending victory and a truly disastrous trek for Washington's rotation.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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