Nationals Take Another Plunge

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008

Twenty minutes after last night's game, Jason Bergmann stood in front of his locker in full uniform. Someone had to take the blame for the Washington Nationals' 10-4 loss to the Florida Marlins at Nationals Park, the club's sixth straight defeat. Bergmann, a right-hander who waltzed through the first four frames, allowed seven runs in the fifth.

Thus, the torrent began.

"I'm pretty fired up," Bergmann said in measured tones. "I'm really [ticked] off, because I'm better than that, and this team didn't need that. I failed these guys tonight, and I'm pretty [ticked] off about it."

Bergmann is an affable sort, curious and loquacious, occasionally analytical. By the time he spoke last night, he had already looked at nearly every pitch of his outing on videotape, and came away pleased with almost nothing. Bergmann's line in the first four innings: three hits, no runs, no walks, four strikeouts. His line in the fifth: six hits, seven runs, one walk, no strikeouts. After two starts, his record is 0-1, his ERA 10.45.

"This is a big locker room, but there's nowhere to hide," he said. "I've got to be a man and man up to my mistakes here tonight, and I really let everybody down. I'm just [ticked]."

That is a sentiment shared in some corners of the Nationals' clubhouse about now. Manager Manny Acta emphasized that the team is two games ahead of last year's 1-8 start, a miserable two-week haul in which the club was completely out-classed, when 120 losses for the season seemed not only reasonable, but likely. But last night -- when Florida first baseman Mike Jacobs hit a pair of two-run homers and Dan Uggla and Jeremy Hermida came through with key two-run doubles -- was the first time this season Washington has been thoroughly dominated.

That 3-0 start, one that featured the christening of Nationals Park in front of a sellout crowd, seems long ago. Last night, Bergmann and the Nationals heard boos from an announced crowd of 23,340.

"Mentally, we got to be stronger," catcher Paul Lo Duca said. "We should've been 4-0. We lost a tough game in Philly [an 8-7, 10-inning setback a week ago], and we let it bother us, and it's snowballed. And we've played terrible the last six games. This is no sugarcoating it. We played terrible, and we need to play better."

Bergmann understands that is the case in his starts. In that game against Philadelphia, he took a 6-0 lead into the sixth, allowed four straight one-out singles, was pulled -- and the Nationals lost. Last night, he was protecting a 1-0 lead when he started the fifth with a flat slider to Florida third baseman Jorge Cantú. That ball was quickly deposited into the left field seats, a game-tying home run.

Singles by the seventh- and eighth-place hitters led to a sacrifice bunt from pitcher Scott Olsen. And that brought up the best player on the field, shortstop Hanley Ramírez, with first base open. Acta's decision: walk Ramírez to get to Uggla, whom Bergmann had struck out -- twice.

"I just fear Hanley Ramírez, and I think everybody else should," Acta said. "It's a no-brainer to me."

Uggla, though, doubled to make it 3-1, and Hermida's double made it 5-1. An out later, Jacobs's first homer of the night made it a blowout. Bergmann survived the inning. Whether he survives the flogging he issued himself afterward remains to be seen.

"I tried to do too much in that last inning, and it shouldn't be that way," he said. "These guys rely on us as starters to go out there and give quality innings and it didn't happen. I'm usually a pretty happy guy before and after each game, and I'm livid right now."

There is, too, an issue going forward. Right-hander Shawn Hill, the man who would have been the Nationals' Opening Night starter if not for forearm soreness suffered in spring training, will pitch one more minor league rehabilitation start. If that goes well, he should return next week. Among the five pitchers in the Nationals' current rotation, only Bergmann and lefties John Lannan and Matt Chico have options remaining -- meaning they could be sent to the minors without the club being at risk of losing them to another team.

After one start, Lannan has a 2.70 ERA. After two, Chico is at 5.56, but pitching coach Randy St. Claire said he was very encouraged by his last outing, a six-inning stint last weekend in St. Louis. Bergmann, suddenly, could be teetering on the edge.

"We're not going to make our decision based on one bad outing or two bad outings," Acta said. "We're going to sit down and talk about it when Hill is ready, and then we'll make the decision. A lot can happen between now and then."

There are, still, pockets of the Nationals' clubhouse that are trying to take the long view. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, hitting .231 after an 0-for-4 night, invoked the Detroit Tigers in saying: "The team that's supposed to win 200 games this year hasn't won a game yet. . . . We've played good baseball."

That is not, however, a universally held sentiment.

"I know it's early, but we need to turn it around quick," Lo Duca said, "because this is getting ridiculous."

Before Bergmann showered, General Manager Jim Bowden had a stern talk with him near his locker. "Just conversation," Bergmann said. After he pulled on a T-shirt and jeans, Bergmann plopped in a chair in the center of the clubhouse. A paperback book sat on one arm. He stared straight ahead at a television screen, a screen that was off.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company