Nats Spend a Couple Quiet Nights at Home

Washington's Cristian Guzman makes an error on a ball hit by Jeff Kent in the sixth inning. The Dodgers scored two unearned runs in the inning; that's more scoring than the Nationals have done in two games in the series.
Washington's Cristian Guzman makes an error on a ball hit by Jeff Kent in the sixth inning. The Dodgers scored two unearned runs in the inning; that's more scoring than the Nationals have done in two games in the series. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Washington Nationals came to RFK Stadium Tuesday night knowing precisely what to expect from Brad Penny, the stud right-hander for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Look for that 95-mph fastball on both sides of the plate, guard against a biting curveball and hope you hit something.

There was no mystery last night, either, what with sinkerballer Derek Lowe throwing for the Dodgers, a right-hander whose sole objective is to get hitters to whack the ball into the ground, creating easy out after easy out, a demoralizing proposition for an entire lineup.

The Nationals' sum total in those two evenings -- nine hits, no runs. Lowe dominated Washington in a 5-0 victory last night, allowing three singles in his seven innings, issuing the Nationals' second consecutive shutout to start a nine-game homestand.

So repeat the refrain from 24 hours earlier, and roll out all those cliches. Good pitching beats good hitting, it wasn't our night, yada yada yada. It all resulted in a pair of games in which Penny and Lowe took what had been a rejuvenated Washington offense and flattened it.

"You got to beat the best," Manager Manny Acta said. "We can't arrange the starting rotation when we're going to play opposite teams. Obviously, you want to miss both of them. But we didn't, they were on their game, and they beat us."

The Nationals put just two men in scoring position in two nights. They are hitting .150 against the Dodgers. Yet they have a simple explanation: The pitchers were better.

"We've just gotten beat these last two games," said right fielder Austin Kearns, who joined third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and center fielder Nook Logan in failing to get a hit the first two games of the series. "It's not like we've had our chances to win or anything. We just got beat. They hit better, they pitched better and played defense better. That's all there is to it."

So much for an offensive revival, something that was widely hoped for when the Nationals hit .310 in winning five of seven games on their recent road trip. Last night's result followed a 10-0 loss to Penny on Tuesday; it was Washington's worst loss of the year. The last time the Nationals were shut out in consecutive games was last May 16-17, a pair of losses in Chicago against the Cubs. The only time it had happened at RFK since baseball returned here was in August 2005 against St. Louis.

How bad have the past two nights been? At the plate, Lowe and Penny combined to go 3 for 3 with two walks, a double and a sacrifice bunt, more production than any of the Nationals' offensive regulars.

Losing to those two, the anchors of the Dodgers' stellar staff, carries with it little shame. But what lies ahead makes the losses more daunting. San Diego ace Jake Peavy -- perhaps the National League's best pitcher thus far -- is due to open a three-game series here tomorrow night.

Look, too, at the bigger picture in coming weeks. The Nationals travel to Minnesota next weekend, where ace lefty Johan Santana might await. They travel to Baltimore, where Erik Bedard is tough. They travel to Toronto, where Roy Halladay could be in the mix. Detroit and Justin Verlander, Cleveland and C.C. Sabathia, then back to Atlanta with John Smoltz and Tim Hudson.

The rotations won't line up so they face all of those guys, but they'll see their share. Think they want to jump on Dodgers lefty Mark Hendrickson today?

"We'll strap it on for him," left fielder Ryan Church said. "And then we got Peavy on Friday. But we're not overlooking tomorrow. It's going to be like that for this month. . . . We're going to see some good pitching."

For the most part, they got that from their own lefty, Mike Bacsik, last night. The 29-year-old fill-in part for the Nationals' tattered rotation offered another serviceable performance, allowing four runs -- just two earned -- over his six innings. But even Bacsik, watching Lowe from the dugout, got the sense that the slightest error could make the difference.

"It's human nature to know that the other team's throwing the ball good, so I got to keep this in reach," Bacsik said.

Which he did through five innings, when he allowed a pair of doubles. The second, from right fielder Andre Ethier, put the Dodgers up 1-0. Then, Bacsik's first mistake: With two outs, he fell behind Lowe 3-0, then walked him on five pitches. Rafael Furcal followed with a run-scoring single that made it 2-0.

Bacsik's only other mistake came an inning later, and it essentially took the Nationals out of the game. With one out, shortstop Cristian Guzman booted Jeff Kent's grounder. And with two down, Bacsik threw a 1-1 curveball inside to Dodgers catcher Russell Martin. "Pretty good pitch," Bacsik said, yet Martin clubbed it for a two-run homer that made it 4-0.

That, then, was more than enough, and the Nationals filtered out of a quiet clubhouse knowing what they had just faced -- and what still lies ahead.

"We have to capitalize at some point," Church said. "Good pitching, it's a test to see what you're made of."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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