By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 9, 2007
Consider the sum total of the last week for the Washington Nationals, and it is grim as grim could be, a collection of games that took seven days but somehow packed in a couple months' worth of misery. Cap it off with the indignity that took place yesterday at RFK Stadium -- one of their former pitchers, Livan Hernandez, had the gall to take a no-hitter into the sixth inning against them -- and the scene in the home clubhouse afterward was appropriate: near silence as the players packed up their bats, their gloves and their pride and prepared to travel to Atlanta, where a worse fate couldn't possibly lie.
Yesterday's 3-1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks completed a four-game sweep, one in which the Nationals managed all of six runs. They have now lost six of their first seven games, have never had a pitcher throw the ball while holding a lead, have lost starters Nook Logan and Cristian Guzman to injuries, failed to get a hit in their first 30 at-bats with runners in scoring position against Arizona, and have been outscored by an average of nearly four runs a game.
And there's 155 games to go.
"It was a tough week, no doubt about it," catcher Brian Schneider said. "Nobody wants to start like this."
The Nationals' front office did its best to prepare fans for what they feel is an essential step in rebuilding the major league roster, paring back payroll in hopes of spending more money when a revenue-generating new ballpark opens next season, all while retooling a moribund farm system. But in the meantime, the product on the field has been wretched, what with a team batting average of .245, a slugging percentage of .371, an ERA of 5.86.
That part, in a way, was expected, and both players and Manager Manny Acta insisted that -- beginning with the six-game road trip that starts tomorrow -- will get better. But the club's management, led by President Stan Kasten, also had to deal with myriad off-field problems in the first week.
Opening Day was roughly 5,000 short of a sellout. Frigid weather helped lead to the three smallest crowds at RFK since baseball returned to Washington in 2005, including the 17,224 that showed up yesterday. Fans complained that concession stands ran out of some items or, in some cases, served undercooked hot dogs -- occasionally without buns. No part of the franchise appeared impervious to mayhem over the course of the first seven games.
So now, the players said, it's time for a deep breath.
"I laugh at people who hit the panic button after the first week," said right fielder Austin Kearns, who ended the Nationals' 0-for-the-series skid with runners in scoring position with an eighth-inning single. "It hasn't gone good. We know that. But if we hit the panic button after the first week, come August, I guess [outsiders] would expect to see guys hanging themselves in here. It's a long year."
It started with a long week. Because the club didn't pursue expensive or even mid-range pitchers in free agency, it knew it would enter the season with an inexperienced starting rotation. Yesterday, one of those inexperienced pitchers -- right-hander Shawn Hill, who entered the season with nine major league starts -- gave the Nationals every opportunity to win.
That is, except for the first inning. Hill hit one batter, hung a change-up that Orlando Hudson drilled for a double, and ended up allowing a run-scoring groundout. Thus, the Nationals trailed 2-0 before they got to hit.
"It's tough to play from behind every day," Hill said.
And by "every day," he means every day. The cumulative elapsed time of the Nationals' leads is perhaps one second, the time it took rookie Kory Casto to step on home plate with the winning run in Wednesday's bottom-of-the-ninth victory over Florida. How much does this team need a lead?
"I don't even know what that is," center fielder Ryan Church said.
Hernandez, though, was handed one, and he took advantage. He is little different from the pitcher who dazzled his way to the All-Star Game wearing a Nationals uniform two seasons ago, mixing in a 63-mph curveball with a fastball that didn't push past the mid-80s. Yet through his seven innings, Washington managed only Ryan Zimmerman's double with two outs in the sixth, then a pair of singles to Church and Ronnie Belliard to lead off the seventh.
At that point, it was still 2-0, courtesy of Hill's fine 6 2/3 -inning outing. Initially, Acta had first baseman Robert Fick try to bunt the tying runs into scoring position. Fick fouled off the attempt. The bunt then was called off, and Fick flied out softly to center, breaking his bat in frustration as he ran to first.
That inability to execute set up the rest of the inning for Hernandez. He got the one break he needed when pinch hitter Dmitri Young drove the ball to left field directly at Scott Hairston, and Schneider tapped out meekly to second to end the threat.
"I'm not the kind of guy that's going to go and try to beat [a team] because I get traded last year," Hernandez said. "I go outside and do my job because I play for a different team now."
In the other clubhouse, Matt Chico -- one of two then-minor leaguers for whom Hernandez was traded last August -- packed his bag, preparing for his first major league road trip. He will start against the Braves tomorrow. Hernandez was asked if he saw any hope for his former team.
"The Nationals now have a couple of situations with the pitchers," he said. "It's a young team, and they're going to be all right. Manny knows about baseball, and he knows the way you can handle the situation like this. They're going to be all right."
Which is, roughly, the same assessment emanating from the Nationals' clubhouse. Rough week? Sure. Long season? Absolutely.
"We're going to be fine," Acta said. "We're not the only team that has started with one win in the first week of the season. Everybody goes through those stretches. . . . We're going to reel off a few wins, too."