By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 28, 2007
ATLANTA, June 27 -- Start with the offense, because the Washington Nationals came to Turner Field, stayed three nights, flailed away at pitch after pitch and managed to push across a total of three runs.
No, no. Better yet, start with the pitching, because the Atlanta Braves had scored a grand total of one run -- count it, one -- during a five-game losing streak that preceded the Nationals' arrival. Yet here was Washington's staff Wednesday night catching a collective case of whiplash in what became an absurd 13-0 loss to the Braves, completing a resounding three-game sweep.
"We just got outplayed across the board," Manager Manny Acta said, "all series."
Get out that checklist of season highs and season lows. The Braves hammered out 22 hits, more than any team had collected against the Nationals since baseball returned to Washington in 2005. Nationals lefty Micah Bowie, who hadn't given up more than three earned runs in any of his seven starts, gave up six in his 3 1/3 innings.
And left-handed reliever Billy Traber, reduced to take-one-for-the-team status, allowed hits to seven of the 13 men he faced over two innings, enough so that right-handed batters are now hitting .423 against him.
All this came eight days after a 15-1 loss to Detroit.
It would be plenty to take for a night. But of more concern is what this one performance says about where the Nationals are as they straggle toward the all-star break, now less than two weeks away. Though they have somehow played above .500 for more than six weeks -- going 23-21 since May 11, even with their starting rotation in tatters -- they have now lost nine of 12.
Acta, though, sat behind his desk afterward with his chin out as Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business" played in the background.
Is he concerned after a series in which his team was outscored 23-3?
"Not really," Acta said. "Why? We just got to keep on working and try to make this club better."
When the season started, the Nationals were supposed to be get-well medicine for the rest of the National League. For the most part, they had staved off that reality. But the Braves hit .150 during that five-game stretch against Boston and Detroit, and all of Atlanta seemed to wonder if the club would ever string a pair of hits together, ever score two runs in a single inning.
Enter the Nationals. The Braves hit a sizzling .377 against Washington pitching and slugged five homers -- including Brian McCann's second of the series Wednesday, a two-run shot. The damage in the finale: a 4-for-5 performance from leadoff man Yunel Escobar, who hit two doubles and scored four times; a 3-for-4 night from Chipper Jones, who drove in four runs; and a 3-for-3 outing for Jeff Francoeur, who had three RBI.
"Their bats had kind of been quiet for a pretty good while," said Nationals center fielder Ryan Langerhans, a former Brave. "It just seemed like everybody's bats kind of woke up. . . . It's just tough when everybody kind of gets hot all at once."
Bowie was the one who had been hot, but the Braves simply torched him. By the time he left with one out in the fourth, he had given up nine hits, four more than he had allowed in any of his previous starts. What could he take out of such an outing?
"I take I got my butt kicked out of it," Bowie said. "I didn't give the team a chance to win."
In the fourth, Escobar scorched a ball back up the middle that smacked off Bowie's left shin. Afterward, the lefty limped to his locker, his leg heavily wrapped. The shin, he said, is a "nonissue," and he stayed in the game -- albeit for one more batter. Of more concern was the way he threw -- too many balls up, and "they hammered them," he said.
"This isn't the first team I've broken out of a slump," Bowie added. "I've broken a lot of hitters out of slumps over the course of my career."
By the fifth, Braves Manager Bobby Cox was treating it as a spring training matchup. It's a wonder starter John Smoltz, who was lifted for a pinch runner in the bottom of the inning with Atlanta up 8-0, didn't start running along the warning track, a typical conditioning drill for pitchers removed from Grapefruit League games.
Afterward, the Nationals packed quickly for a late-night flight to Pittsburgh, where an off day -- and then a three-game series against the Pirates -- awaited. The flight could have been divided into two separate discussions, each of equal importance: Why aren't we hitting? Why aren't we pitching?
Neither element showed up in Atlanta, and the result was a whitewash.