Nationals Lose Seventh Straight

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2008

Just when the cruel, wintry side of spring seemed to have a death-grip on the throat of April, its softer side relented last night, bringing 70-degree weather and clear skies to Nationals Park. And just when the season's opening month threatened to bury the Washington Nationals beneath a pile of losses, here was a fly ball headed for the visitors' bullpen in the bottom of the ninth, 24,549 fans rising to their feet and tracking it.

But both the weather and the fly ball were mere teases, as the rain and cold are due to return, and the shot off the bat of Nick Johnson, kept in play by the outstretched glove of the left fielder, was reduced to an ultimately harmless double.

Two batters later, Paul Lo Duca grounded into a game-ending double play, and the Nationals were slinking back to the comfort of their new, plush clubhouse, another loss -- this one 4-3 to the Florida Marlins -- in the books, the team's seventh in a row.

"It's early and these guys have got to get it going," Manager Manny Acta said. "We've been through this before, and we'll get out of it."

Seven innings of wasted at-bats against Marlins lefty Mark Hendrickson (2-1) and a trio of single runs given up by a trio of Washington relievers put the Nationals in the position of requiring a ninth-inning rally, and it very nearly occurred. With his team down 4-2, Lastings Milledge led off against Marlins closer Kevin Gregg with a double, and two batters later Johnson sent a deep fly to left.

Marlins left fielder Josh Willingham jumped at the wall, the ball momentarily settling into his glove beyond the wall, before the impact with the wall catapulted the ball back into play. Milledge scored easily, and Johnson stood at second. But after Gregg hit Austin Kearns to put the go-ahead run on base, Lo Duca fouled back a juicy 1-1 pitch, then on the next pitch grounded into the game-ending double play.

"Someone needs to get a hit, with guys in scoring position," Lo Duca said, "and I just didn't get it done."

Asked if he was contemplating lineup changes, Acta chuckled then said: "Just because we're losing doesn't mean you have to turn the lineup upside down. What am I going to do, take [Ryan] Zimmerman out of the third hole because he's hitting .230? We just have to keep working [and] we're going to get out of it."

The Nationals appeared to have the right pitcher on the mound to break a losing streak, as left-hander Odalis Pérez (0-2) carried a three-hit shutout and a 1-0 lead into the sixth inning. But he relinquished both, along with the ball, by allowing three hits and a pair of runs in the inning.

The go-ahead run, though charged to Pérez, originated in the right hand of reliever Saúl Rivera, summoned by Acta with two on and two outs in the sixth, and who immediately surrendered a run-scoring double to Marlins third baseman Jorge Cantú. The Marlins would tack on single runs against Luis Ayala in the eighth and Jon Rauch in the ninth, negating Johnny Estrada's pinch-hit RBI single in the eighth and Johnson's run-scoring double in the ninth.

"I felt good all night," Pérez said. "Unfortunately, I lost with a good effort."

Through five innings, Ronnie Belliard's solo homer down the left field line -- coming on an 0-2 pitch from Hendrickson in the third -- stood as the only run of the game. But Hendrickson, a 6-foot-9 finesse pitcher, was nearly untouchable after that, retiring 13 straight at one point. In all, the Nationals managed only three hits off Hendrickson, who rarely had to work hard to retire them, needing only 80 pitches to complete his seven innings.

"It looked like some of them were trying to win the game with one swing early in the game," Acta said of his hitters, "and I don't think we did the best job of working Hendrickson."

Before the game, with the losing streak already weighing on the Nationals, Acta said he had not yet felt the need to close the clubhouse doors and have it out with his players. Pitcher Jason Bergmann, despondent in defeat the previous night after giving up seven runs in the fifth inning, felt it necessary to note, "The sun came up, as it always does."

The sun indeed came up, but it was long gone when the seventh straight loss went into the books. And presumably, it will be up again today, although it would be understandable if there were nervousness about that in the Nationals' clubhouse.

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