For Nationals, A Quiet Night On the Field

A hit by the Astros' Chris Burke is out of the reach of Nationals shortstop Felipe Lopez, much like Washington's chances thanks to a stagnant offense.
A hit by the Astros' Chris Burke is out of the reach of Nationals shortstop Felipe Lopez, much like Washington's chances thanks to a stagnant offense. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Jim Bowden can see it all from his box at RFK Stadium. He can look down at his major league team, the Washington Nationals, from which he would desperately like to see more offense. The general manager has his BlackBerry and his iPhone at his side, keeping in touch with scouts, monitoring games in the minors, the information constantly pulsing.

And when Bowden watches games like last night's 4-2 loss to the Houston Astros, he is reminded, more and more, that his is an imperfect club, that rebuilding is the only priority and that another day has ticked off the calendar. The trade deadline, July 31, is less than two weeks away.

"I can't tell you how it's going to play out," Bowden said. "Every year is a unique market. This is no different."

The two players perceived as Bowden's primary trading chips -- veterans Ronnie Belliard and Dmitri Young -- were the two players who looked most like major league hitters against Astros right-hander Chris Sampson and three relievers. Belliard went 2 for 3 with a solo homer and a walk, Young 2 for 4 with a double to raise his league-leading average to .341. The rest of the lineup? Two hits, one of them Ryan Zimmerman's 15th homer.

That wasn't nearly enough to get a win for right-hander Tim Redding, who threw seven innings and allowed three runs -- a two-run homer to Carlos Lee in the third and Hunter Pence's solo homer to lead off the fifth.

"Good outing, if you will," Redding said. "But we lost the game."

Solutions, for now and in the future?

"We all know I love hitters," Bowden said. "We all know I love to score runs. It drives me nuts having a team that doesn't score runs, because I like to score runs. I like lineups that can score eight or nine a game. That's what I want to have here. Every time our fans come to the park, I want them to think we can score nine."

As currently constructed, the Nationals can rarely do that. They went 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position, lowering their average in such situations to .244. Take Belliard and Young out of such a lineup, and the Nationals might go a month without a three-run rally.

But such decisions about whom to trade and whom to keep have much more to do with seasons beyond this one for the Nationals. Bowden, then, likely will spend the next two weeks bunkered in his office, a puppeteer pulling the strings that will send scouts from one park to another nationwide. It is that time of year, when other team's players -- particularly minor leaguers -- are more important than Bowden's own.

"If there's something out there that makes sense to get us better," Bowden said, "we're going to do that."

Washington's situation this year is different from last, when the Nationals held the perceived linchpin of the trade market, outfielder Alfonso Soriano -- who ultimately wasn't dealt. There are no Sorianos, but Young and Belliard -- not to mention relievers Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch and outfielder Ryan Church -- could bring prospects that would further restock the Nationals' farm system. Such deals would seem to fit into the Nationals' overall plan. Yet Bowden took a cautionary stance.

"We're going to explore everything we possibly can," he said. "There's a possibility we don't make any trades between now and the deadline."

In the cases of Young and Belliard, in particular, that's an interesting possibility. Young has been the Nationals' only consistent offensive performer this season, a man who is hitting .406 in his last 51 games. That stretch has brought about the seemingly absurd possibility that he could win a batting title. But in what uniform?

"I would love to see him stick around here and do it," Manager Manny Acta said. "But you know, business goes [on], and if he doesn't stick around here, I hope he wins a batting title wherever he goes -- unless he's in our division and has to get three hits against us every game."

Belliard raised his average to .311, and there has been internal lobbying to sign him beyond this year. Both were signed as minor league free agents after spring training began, ostensibly in the hopes that they would become tradable if they performed well.

They both, now, say they wouldn't mind staying.

"Why not?" Belliard said.

Bowden indicated that's a possibility.

"I also think Dmitri's a really good player to keep," Bowden said. "I think he has a mission. . . . We'd like to keep him. . . . My preference would be to keep the players, [then] trade for players that could help us win a championship. And last resort -- take the [compensatory] draft picks and be happy with that."

For last night, though, Bowden was left to watch his current crew, which twice had men on second and nobody out. Twice, it failed to score the runner. Zimmerman bounced into a pair of double plays, and the Nationals didn't get a hit after the sixth.

"We just didn't execute," Acta said.

From above, with two weeks left to determine who stays and who goes, Bowden watched it all, his hands on the levers.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company