Another One and Done For Nationals' Offense

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Lenny Harris wasn't supposed to be in this position, standing on the top step of the dugout at RFK Stadium, peering out at a collection of hitters who, right now, look like they couldn't define the phrase "three-run double."

But Harris was there last night, absorbing the Washington Nationals' 3-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs, a loss like so many that had come before it. The stats are numbing by now -- seven losses in eight games, 13 in their last 17, a tailspin heading to the badly needed all-star break.

Harris is the Nationals' hitting coach these days, the man who replaced Mitchell Page when Page left the team in May to deal with personal problems. Harris had been the Nationals' roving infield instructor in the minors, and is just more than a year removed from an 18-season big league career.

Page knew the Nationals' hitters. Harris is learning them now, all while the team is enduring a swoon that shows no signs of ending.

"Obviously, it's not very easy because he's never worked with these guys before," Manager Manny Acta said after his team managed all of five hits, four of them singles. "And let's be honest -- he was an infield guy in the minors."

No one, to be sure, is blaming Harris for the Nationals' offensive struggles, because this group has been the worst offensive team in the National League all season. But it is an interesting spot for a guy who, just two years ago, was responsible for getting one man over a slump -- himself. Now he is responsible for a group that has pushed across a grand total of 13 runs in its last eight games.

"Guys come out and work every day on things, and you try to get better," Harris said. "But sometimes, you can't control it. Everybody tries to do too much at one time when things are going bad. Everybody's trying to get four hits in one at-bat. It doesn't happen like that."

Four hits in an inning seems preposterous now. Last night, they managed three against Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano over 6 2/3 innings. The Cubs, therefore, needed just three runs against Washington's emergency starter, Tim Redding, who brought his 5.32 ERA with him from Class AAA Columbus to fill in for the injured Micah Bowie.

Redding's reaction when he got the call Tuesday?

"I was shocked, actually," he said.

Redding hadn't pitched in the majors since July 15, 2005. That day, he lasted three batters into the second inning, was charged with six runs, and his New York Yankees lost to Boston, 17-1. The next day, he was designated for assignment, and he hadn't been back in the big leagues since.

Yesterday, he shoved himself into a locker at RFK Stadium and changed by 3:45 p.m. When he wound up to throw his first warmup pitch, he promptly air-mailed catcher Brian Schneider, nailing the backstop.

"You feel the electricity," Redding said. "You hear the fans chirping, umpires talking to the catcher. You hear everything that you're supposed to channel out. It's almost like getting your first call ever."

So for a few batters, that's how Redding handled it. He allowed Alfonso Soriano's single to open the game, a stolen base, and then Ryan Theriot's RBI single. He hadn't recorded an out, and the Cubs led 1-0.

"I guarantee you he had some butterflies," Schneider said.

Still, the Cubs got only one run in the first and two more on Cliff Floyd's bases-loaded single in the third.

"Would I want to have five scoreless innings?" Acta said. "Yeah, everybody would. But he controlled the damage and kept us in the game."

Rather, he kept most teams in the game. The Nationals, right now, are a different story. Three runs can seem like three touchdowns. In their last eight games, the Nationals are hitting .208, slugging .292. Harris is watching his hitters, and he considers it a psychological battle.

"Right now, they're in situations where they have to play catch-up," he said. "They're playing situation baseball so they can get back into games. It's mental things that are going on. It seems like you don't get much effort when they're five, four, six runs behind. That can affect guys' swings."

It can affect strategy, too. The Nationals got the first two men on in the fifth in a 3-0 game against Zambrano, and Redding's spot was up. Acta, though, said bunting never entered his mind. "I'm not in the position to be giving [away] outs," he said, "the way we're swinging."

The Nationals ended up loading the bases with one down, but managed only Ronnie Belliard's sacrifice fly. A three-run double? Ludicrous, at this point. The Nationals have scored three runs in a game just once in their last eight.

So Harris keeps working at it. The new hitting coach likened his job to a juggling act.

"You take one hitter at a time," Harris said. He had Cristian Guzman and Dmitri Young hot, but Ryan Zimmerman, Austin Kearns and Ryan Church are stumbling along.

"You just keep working," Harris said. "That's all you can do."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company