Nationals Suffer An Early Knockout

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

In the detritus of the Washington Nationals' 15-1 lambasting at the hands of the Detroit Tigers last night, there were scarcely any subtleties to dissect. The Tigers, as Nationals Manager Manny Acta noted, are "flat-out, your typical American League power machine," and they showed why in a clinic in which they put up more runs and collected more hits than Washington had allowed to anyone else this year.

"Anything and everything I threw up, it was hit hard," said right-hander Jason Simontacchi, who matched a franchise record by giving up 10 earned runs in three-plus innings. "Just see you later. It's just ridiculous."

But as the Nationals showered and filtered out of a quiet home clubhouse at RFK Stadium -- ready to put behind Magglio OrdoƱez's 3-for-3, two-RBI performance, to forget about Sean Casey's three-run homer or a 17-hit Detroit attack -- a long, lean body sat folded on a chair in the back corner.

"Abreu!" veteran reliever Ray King barked, smiling. "Another one tomorrow."

Winston Abreu, a 30-year-old reliever who made his major league debut last year and badly wants to remain here, reached to softly bump fists with King. He wore red workout shorts and a red T-shirt, and his beleaguered right arm was heavily wrapped. He stuck his head back in his locker.

"Abreu," King said. "Let it go, dude."

These are the lessons the Nationals must learn from such nights. At the beginning of the season -- when the Nationals were frequently compared not to the 2007 Tigers, the defending American League champs, but to the 2003 version that lost 119 games -- it figured there would be more experience with the bad side of blowouts. But in 70 games before last night, Washington had lost by eight runs or more only three times.

"Shower, go home," Acta said, "and be ready to play tomorrow again."

For someone like Simontacchi, who has been to baseball purgatory (independent ball) and back, that is a bit easier to do. "For me, it's another four or five days," said Simontacchi, who tied a mark set by an obscure Australian right-hander for the Montreal Expos named Shayne Bennett, who allowed 10 earned runs to the Colorado Rockies in a game long forgotten, back on Aug. 15, 1999.

So the Tigers' three-run first was rinsed away in the shower. Casey's three-run homer was rubbed away by his towel. And by the time he considered the three men he allowed to reach base to start the fourth -- a parade that had Acta on his way to the mound to save his pitcher from himself -- Simontacchi was able to joke about an outing that lifted his ERA from 4.84 to 6.31.

Do anything differently after the first inning?

"I tried to miss their bats," he said.

He had moved on. For someone like Abreu, though, that process is more difficult. It is the duty for the few veterans in a developing clubhouse to teach the Nationals how to absorb such a pummeling. Acta preferred to put it on the Tigers, who now lead majors with a staggering .295 batting average -- 48 points higher than the Nationals.

"We've got to keep it in perspective, too," Acta said. "That's the best team we have played so far. They're the best hitting team in the world."

So it is left to players such as first baseman Dmitri Young, a former Tiger himself, to get across that somehow, the Nationals must arrive at RFK for the series finale tonight ready to salvage one game.

"They may take it a little more personally, seeing a team like that do what they did to us tonight and knowing that they can do it again," Young said. "You have to have the mind-set that, 'We can get them out. We can hit these guys.' "

It's a mind-set that seemed lost on Abreu, even as King tried to pick him up. Called up from the minors in May to help an ailing pitching staff, he has shown flashes of promise. But Marcus Thames, a platoon player for the Tigers, tormented him for two nights. On Monday, Thames hit a towering upper-deck homer off Abreu in Detroit's 9-8 victory. Last night, with the game long since decided in the ninth, he hit another upper-deck shot, this one good for two runs.

Abreu has now given up runs in each of his last six appearances. His ERA is up to 6.38, and opponents are hitting .306 against him. "I'm struggling," he said quietly.

And with reliever Luis Ayala set to return over the weekend, with starter Jason Bergmann on the way back next week, roster spots are becoming precious.

"Sometimes, you start looking at what guys are close, who's coming back," King said. "You start thinking, 'If I don't do this, this could happen.' It can really eat at yourself."

Thus, a meaningless homer at the end of a throw-away night -- one that took a 12-run lead and made it 14 -- meant much to Abreu.

"I can't think about the guy who comes back," Abreu said. "I know I can pitch. It's like I say: It's a struggle."

A more difficult struggle for some on a night that needs to be forgotten.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company