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Mystery Game

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By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, May 17, 2008


If you think you understand baseball, it probably just means you aren't paying close enough attention. For example, take the Nats, a mystery inside a conundrum.

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Closer Chad Cordero has been hurt almost all year. Now cleanup man Nick Johnson will be lost for about a month. The players used most of the time in the supposed heart of the order are hitting .192, .211, .220, .234 and .238. And the entire starting outfield has four homers.

Then, on Friday before losing the first game of a series against the region rival Orioles, Manager Manny Acta finally benched right fielder Austin Kearns, whose catatonic slump (slugging .274) has infected every part of his game, even his excellent defense. Atop that, in the Nats' 5-3 loss to Baltimore, mammoth Wily Mo Peña and Elijah Dukes went 0 for 7 with four strikeouts and nine men left on base. The 510-pound duo: zero homers.

The list of unexpected disappointments and injuries, all in seven weeks, can seem endless. How much more turmoil can a team of humble talents endure? Especially because it already suffered a 2-15 collapse in April?

"We lost our two starting catchers, too," Nats bench coach Pat Corrales said of Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada. "But despite it all we've been playing pretty well for weeks now."

Strange game. The Nats, even after this loss, have won 13 of their last 23 games, including three of four from the Mets this week in New York. It's just such a paradox -- the unexpected, bordering on the inexplicable -- that addicts us to the game.

Why are the Nats still afloat? And likely to stay presentably decent until their injured players return and their supposed sluggers rediscover the meaning of the exotic term "home run"?

Whisper the fragile words: starting pitching.

"In spring training, we wondered sometimes if we had three [dependable] starting pitchers," Acta said.

How many do you have now? "Let's go through the rotation a couple of more times before we answer that," Acta answered, grinning.

However, the answer might be "five."

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