By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 10, 2007
MILWAUKEE, May 9 -- That there would be times like this for the Washington Nationals is hardly a surprise, and even the players who gathered in the glum visitors clubhouse Wednesday afternoon at Miller Park have some sense of an extremely harsh reality. As veteran Robert Fick said, "We know we're going to take our lumps."
Those lumps are painful to endure, what with so many in succession. Wednesday's 3-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers was an agonizing end to a nine-game road trip that began with a victory but finished with eight straight defeats. The lumps? Right now, it's something akin to being pecked to death, because five of the eight losses were decided by one or two runs, none was by more than four.
Thus, the Nationals return home with the worst record in baseball, 9-25. They are pitching better than expected, hitting much worse, on pace to win 43 games and lose 119 -- just one off the record for futility set by the 1962 New York Mets. Thus, they are starting to wonder how it will all end up when September rolls around.
"I don't think you can do this for six months," right fielder Austin Kearns said.
They're about to find out. The plan laid out by team president Stan Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden, endorsed by the new ownership group of the Lerner family, famously calls for a long view, one in which player development and scouting are more important in 2007 than the major league roster. Thus, considering the start, the players are left to hope for seasons ahead while they suffer through the horrendous start to the current one.
"We realize we're not going to win 100 games this year," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We're not going to be in any kind of race or things like that. But I think we realize what we can have here in the future. We just have to stick together. We haven't been getting blown out. We're like one play away every game."
One idea behind the club's plan is to make some discoveries this season, and right-hander Jason Bergmann might be one of them. Bergmann posted his fifth quality start in his last six outings, a one-run effort in which he needed just 79 pitches to work through six innings. But such is the status of the current Nationals that Manager Manny Acta felt he had to lift Bergmann for a pinch hitter with the bases empty and two outs in the seventh inning of a 1-1 game. The search for offense, of any kind, continues.
"You can't send a pitcher up there to hit that late in the game," Acta said, "especially with the offense we've had lately."
Yet Nook Logan, the pinch hitter, struck out. The offense the Nationals have had lately is nearly nonexistent. And as the club works through a start in which it is hitting .227, it's possible that Zimmerman, the one player who is all but guaranteed to be here when the rebuilding process is complete, is dealing with the greatest adjustment.
On Wednesday, Zimmerman went 0 for 4, ending a modest six-game hitting streak in which he started to put behind a slow start. Yet it is a good indication of the franchise's status that a 22-year-old who played all of two months in the minor leagues is being counted on to produce far more than his current .255 average and eight RBI.
"We need him to carry us," Fick said. "That's the bottom line. He carried us last year. I'm not saying he needs to [put up the same numbers] again, but he's our best player."
One theme Acta mentioned often during the road trip was that he would have to teach this club how to perform in certain situations. Zimmerman is a prime example. He must somehow simultaneously be a leader -- and learn on the fly.
"You got to realize that it's hard for me, being so young and still learning, to be the guy that they pitch around," Zimmerman said. "It's hard. But it's also good for me to learn at such a young age, because if I'm going to do what I want to do in this game, and do what the people in this organization think that I'm going to do, it's going to be like that for a while. I'm only seeing two or three pitches to hit a game. I've got to learn how to deal with that."
Right now, the Nationals are missing the pitches that they do get to hit. Perhaps the biggest at-bat in the game came with one out in the sixth, with the score 1-1 on Felipe Lopez's second homer in as many days. With runners on first and second, Kearns came to the plate against Claudio Vargas, the former National. He got a first-pitch change-up, "a good pitch to hit." He popped it up, and the disgust on his face and in his body language showed all the way back to the dugout.
"It's not for selfish reasons at all you're upset," Kearns said. "You're upset because you know it's not like we're throwing runners out there every inning with a chance to score. That's the biggest thing. We're getting one or two shots a game, and when you don't get it done, that's probably the most upsetting thing."
It figured, then, that not only would Brian Schneider line out deep to center to end the inning, but the Brewers would win on singles from Bill Hall and Geoff Jenkins in the eighth, each of them grounders that, had they been a foot or two in another direction, would have been outs.
Close? Sure. But at some point, these Nationals want better than that.
"You can't feel better about coming out . . . 1-8," Schneider said. "You can't feel good about yourself. You can't feel good about the team."