Nationals Extend Run Of Offensive Futility

Alfonso Soriano raised his average to .305. Chicago had 11 hits, while Ted Lilly held the Nationals to three hits, one run in seven innings.
Alfonso Soriano raised his average to .305. Chicago had 11 hits, while Ted Lilly held the Nationals to three hits, one run in seven innings. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The snapshot of the fortunes of the Chicago Cubs and the Washington Nationals was taken in the first inning last night. The streaking Cubs got a walk and a hit batter, and the next man up, Aramis Ramirez, came through with a two-run double. The Nationals had runners on the corners with no one out, and the heart of their order responded with a strikeout looking, a strikeout swinging and a ground ball that became an easy force at second.

Thus, the Nationals' 7-2 loss to the Cubs was ushered in, and it felt inevitable from that point forward. The numbers flow from there. The Nationals have now lost six of seven, 12 of 16 and are averaging 2.8 runs in their last 17 games. The Cubs, conversely, have won nine of their last 10 and are a game above .500 for the first time since April 7, when they were 3-2.

Want more? Cover your eyes and peek through your fingers. Cubs left-hander Ted Lilly didn't allow the Nationals a hit until there were two outs in the fifth, and by that point Chicago led 7-0. The Nationals have 12 runs in their last seven games. They haven't scored as many as four runs since June 22, when they beat the Cleveland Indians, 4-1. They haven't scored more than four since June 18, a 9-8 loss to the Detroit Tigers.

What do they need to get out of it?

"A lucky game," said first baseman Dmitri Young, who went hitless for just the third time in his last 25 games.

So get out the voodoo dolls and throw a chicken in the pot, because the Nationals need some sort of new spell. That Alfonso Soriano was on the other side -- as the Cubs' left fielder, contributing two singles, a stolen base, a run scored and another driven in -- could only be seen as a salt-in-the-wounds sidelight for the crowd of 24,015 at RFK Stadium.

The fans mixed in some boos with the cheers for Soriano -- some apparently thankful for his 46-homer, 41-steal season in Washington a year ago, some bitter he left for an eight-year, $136 million contract the Nationals didn't for one minute consider matching. But even as Ramirez (3 for 5) did more damage than Soriano, there was a poignant reminder that the Nationals have no hitter like him anymore.

Take that first inning. Washington starter Jason Simontacchi assessed his performance this way: "Didn't execute pitches. Left balls up in the zone. Got behind guys." Ingredients for damage: check, check and check. Thus, the Cubs led 2-0 before the Nationals came to the plate.

When they got there, they found Lilly struggling with his command early on. He walked Nook Logan, he of the .253 on-base percentage entering the game, to lead off the inning. Lilly then had Logan picked off first, but the Nationals center fielder beat Derrek Lee's wild throw to second -- and took third on the error.

Thus, the Nationals had a runner on third, no one out, and the meat of their order -- such as it is -- coming up. Ronnie Belliard followed with a walk. First and third, no outs, trailing 2-0. Given the way the offense has been going, might guys grip the bat a little tighter in such a situation?

"Some of those guys are probably pressing a little bit instead of just letting the game come to them," Manager Manny Acta said. "That's human nature. They're going to have to relax and have quality at-bats and things will happen for them."

Ryan Zimmerman, who came into the at-bat without an RBI since June 17, struck out looking. Young, the Nationals' only reliable hitter in the first half of the season, struck out swinging. And Austin Kearns, who like Zimmerman came into the at-bat without an RBI since June 17, grounded to shortstop, an easy fielder's choice to end it.

Zimmerman ended up 2 for 4 on the night, and Kearns scored him with a single in the ninth, his first RBI in 58 at-bats. With the way things are going, it figures those results came in the ninth, with the game out of reach, rather than in the first, with the game right there.

"Don't change anything," Zimmerman said. "Don't get frustrated or anything like that."

Simontacchi lasted just three innings and gave up five runs, an outing that was especially painful considering that tonight, the Nationals will call up right-hander Tim Redding from Class AAA Columbus to face Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano. Redding's appearance will come despite his 5.32 ERA in the minors and is necessary because Micah Bowie is out with a hip injury.

"We don't know what we're going to get," Acta said.

From their starting pitcher, that is. The offense, right now, is quite predictable.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company