Offense Comes Up Short Again

Nationals catcher Jesus Flores waits for the throw but it is too late as Ruben Gotay scores the Mets' final run.
Nationals catcher Jesus Flores waits for the throw but it is too late as Ruben Gotay scores the Mets' final run. (By Ed Betz -- Associated Press)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2007

NEW YORK, July 28 -- When the Washington Nationals departed for their most recent trip Tuesday, the doldrums of the season and two division powerhouses awaited. Against loaded lineups, the potential for disaster loomed for the makeshift pitching rotation to finally succumb to conventional wisdom and get knocked around like, well, a makeshift pitching rotation.

Five games into the trip, the results have been mixed yet encouraging, even after the New York Mets defeated the Nationals, 3-1, Saturday in the first game of a doubleheader. Before the nightcap at Shea Stadium, the Nationals had lost three of five, but all by two runs or less.

"Everybody's counting us out," said Tim Redding, who became the latest unfamiliar name to give the Nats a quality start. "They're saying we're not a big league ball club, and we're going to be losing some important pieces during the trade deadline. The way I look at it, I don't think they're looking to just unload people. We're playing these teams that are in division races, and they're supposed to be winning. We're not just rolling over."

That pitching staff, with new faces appearing on a near daily basis, can be praised for keeping the Nationals competitive. Redding allowed one run in six innings and striking out eight. He was followed in the nightcap by Joel Hanrahan, the second Nationals starter to make his big-league debut in three days.

"You keep knocking us down, we keep bouncing back up," Nationals President Stan Kasten said. "Throwing people out there, and just ruining the lives of advance scouts everywhere."

The problem, though, is those pitchers aren't finding enough help from an anemic offense and a worn bullpen. Saul Rivera allowed two runs in one inning, the decisive seventh. The Nationals produced only three hits in Game 1, two soft singles by D'Angelo Jimenez and a solo home run by Felipe Lopez.

Otherwise, Orlando Hernandez baffled the Nationals with his vast array of breaking pitches and arm slots. "When he's on, it doesn't matter who he's facing," Acta said.

"It's hard, because he's kind of different," Ryan Zimmerman said. "He threw a lot more fastballs than he has in the past. The different arm angles, it kind of tricks you a little bit. You try to be patient, but then when he gets ahead, it's tough."

For six innings, Redding matched him pitch for pitch. Redding entered the game with a total of five strikeouts in four starts. In six innings, he punched out eight Mets, throwing what Acta considered the sharpest breaking balls he has seen from Redding. His curve snapped from hitters' shoulders to knees, the action Redding desires.

He found trouble only once, when Lastings Milledge laced a double off the left field wall for an RBI. Redding also walked four, but kept the potent Mets off balance. He also churned through six innings, giving some rest to the bullpen.

"I was actually kind of disappointed," Redding said. "I was really hoping to try to get seven, like [Mike] Bacsik did yesterday."

Indeed, it seems each starter tries to top the last, no matter that most started the season in the minors. Thursday's starter, John Lannan, began the season in Class A. And yet, the starters have produced a 3.40 combined ERA over the past 10 days.

"They've been doing it all year," Zimmerman said. "To have four of your five guys you left camp with not pitching any more and have the people step up who pitched the way have they have, I think that shows how tough they are, and what kind of people they are."

But they need help and they received little, if any, from both the bullpen and the offense. Once Redding exited with the score tied 1-1, Rivera entered and imploded. After Damion Easley ripped a missile to center fielder Nook Logan, the next four Mets reached base. Two scored, with Jose Reyes scoring the eventual winning run on a single from Ruben Gotay.

For most of the game, the Nats had stayed with a first-place team. As for most of the road trip, the Nationals play hard, but not well enough to overcome their deficiencies. In the end, the culprit this time was Rivera.

"He was just up in the zone the whole inning," Acta said. "He couldn't get the ball down. And he paid for it."

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