Pitching and Defense Let Down Nats Again

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006

Randy St. Claire's first appearance in front of the crowd last night at RFK Stadium came in the third inning, when he jogged to the mound. Ramon Ortiz, the Washington Nationals' starting pitcher, was upset after Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins stole second without a throw. St. Claire arrived to calm, to cajole, to settle down his veteran. And then he left, ducking back into the dugout, all the while stressing about his pitching staff.

St. Claire's trip, like so many others for the pitching coach in an August that has long since slipped away from the Nationals, didn't pay off. Ortiz had allowed three runs almost before St. Claire returned to his seat. The seeds were in place for what became a 5-1 loss to the Phillies, who are in the process of using the Nationals as a springboard into the lead in the National League wild-card race.

And even as Ortiz and relievers Chris Schroder, Jon Rauch and Ryan Wagner pitched far better than other Nationals recently, St. Claire is left to stew about his staff's performance. He might toss. He might turn. But it's not getting much better.

"Every waking hour, basically," St. Claire said, "I think about it."

The Nationals suffered their ninth loss in 10 games last night because second baseman Jose Vidro couldn't make a play on a grounder in the third, a two-out play that came just after St. Claire's first visit to Ortiz. It was ruled a single for Chase Utley, and it scored the Phillies' first run.

"I think I should've made that play," Vidro said, "and it definitely cost us the ballgame."

They lost because Ortiz couldn't compose himself thereafter, throwing a 3-0 fastball down the chute to the next hitter, slugging first baseman Ryan Howard, when the Nationals were trying to walk him, and it became a double. They lost because left fielder Alfonso Soriano and center fielder Ryan Church couldn't communicate properly on Pat Burrell's ball to the gap, a two-base error on Soriano. They even committed a Little League error when catcher Brandon Harper returned the ball to Ortiz -- and threw it over his head.

"That's hooked up to a losing team," Manager Frank Robinson said. "You see the way we played tonight and the way we've been playing -- that's a losing team."

Cole Hamels, Philadelphia's promising rookie left-hander, made them continue to feel that way, looking exactly as a prospect should, dominating the Nationals over eight innings, allowing only four hits, including Soriano's 43rd homer.

Yet it hasn't been a lack of offense that has caused this tailspin. It has been pitching, and St. Claire knows it. Ortiz gave what amounts to a command performance for a Washington starter these days, a six-inning outing in which he allowed four runs, three of them earned. Still, his frustration boiled over.

"I don't want to lose every day," he said. "It's crazy. I don't know what to say. I don't know what to do."

Neither does St. Claire. The Nationals' rotation during the last 10 games has a 12.42 ERA and an astonishing opponents' batting average of .400. In the nine games prior to last night, the Nationals had allowed opponents a ridiculous on base-plus-slugging percentage of .985 -- meaning they turned each and every hitter into something between Atlanta's Chipper Jones (.997) and Soriano (.972).

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