Punchless Nats Waste Another Solid Start

Washington's Cristan Guzm¿n slides into second base for a steal as Chase Utley mishandles a high throw, but the Nationals couldn't generate a run.
Washington's Cristan Guzm¿n slides into second base for a steal as Chase Utley mishandles a high throw, but the Nationals couldn't generate a run. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Through almost two and a half hours of baseball last night, the score never changed. Just zeros and waiting.

The Washington Nationals lost last night because they're still waiting. With the season 47 games old, they're still waiting for the offense to break from its sleepwalk. They're still waiting for a lineup to produce with runners in scoring position. They're still waiting for results to catch up with logic, because an entire roster of hitters can only flounder below their career averages for so long, right?

When the Philadelphia Phillies broke the scorelessness at Nationals Park, scoring in the ninth inning against relief pitcher Jon Rauch, they provided a final score, 1-0, that can stand quite well as a summary of Washington's first two months.

Because so far, the Nationals have proven this much: They have one very formidable pitching staff. And they've found zero offense to support it.

Starters Jason Bergmann and Cole Hamels combined for seven innings of shutout baseball last night, creating the framework for a final few minutes of desperate baseball: pinch hitters, pinch runners, sacrifice bunts and close plays. The Phillies scored their lone run off Rauch when Pedro Feliz led off the ninth with a double -- "fastball right down the middle," Rauch said. When pinch hitter Greg Dobbs parachuted a soft single into shallow center, pinch runner Eric Bruntlett scored.

That meant Rauch (2-1) had surrendered his first run since April 24.

That meant the Nationals had allowed their first run after 18 scoreless innings.

That meant the Nationals, masters of binary code baseball -- nothing but a scoreboard of zeros and ones -- had three outs left to actually score.

"It came down to this," Manager Manny Acta said. "We had men on third with less than two outs; we couldn't score and they did. It was a good ballgame."

The bottom of the ninth allowed Washington its chance. With two outs, Phillies closer Brad Lidge walked Elijah Dukes, who stole two bases -- a Salvation Army giveaway for a floundering offense. But after Rob Mackowiak walked, Felipe L¿pez bounced the first pitch to second base, ending the game and assuring that Washington must play today to win this series, despite holding the majors' top home run-hitting team to just one run in two games.

"We'll get better," Nationals hitting coach Lenny Harris said after the game. "Without a doubt. We're still early in the season, like I said. But we're doing okay. Guys haven't quit, and that's all you can ask for. We're working hard, so things will turn around for those guys."

Much credit for Washington's offensive difficulties yesterday is owed to Hamels, who one start before had pitched a complete-game shutout against the Braves. Just 24 years old, Hamels last year went 15-5 with a 3.39 ERA. He entered last night's ballgame having pitched seven innings or more in eight of nine starts. Last night, his pitches hummed with life. The Nationals struck out 13 times and managed just five hits, only one for extra bases.

"Good pitching always shuts down good hitting," Harris said. "He's been the best so far. Outstanding. The pitches that he threw -- a high fastball, the change-up, he had everything working for him. We chased so many high fastballs, but he set us up with that breaking ball, because he was throwing it for strikes, too. He was fantastic. Starters we've seen this year? Hamels, he's got to be number one so far."

For the third consecutive game, Washington received the kind of starting pitching necessary to counterbalance a feeble offense. Two days after John Lannan's seven-inning, one-run outing, one day after Tim Redding's 6 1/3 scoreless innings, Bergmann zipped through an efficient seven innings with only minor blemishes: five hits, three walks. He struck out five. And exited a 0-0 game.

If impressive pitching and inadequate hitting have been the hallmarks of this season's first 1 1/2 months, then this game was its most cartoonish representation. Though some in Washington's management figure that time alone will bring both the pitching and the hitting back to middle ground, that has yet to happen. Time, instead, is forcing this season's primary, and neutralizing, story lines -- strong pitching, weak hitting -- into the extremes.

The lineup Washington started with last night had a combined 15 home runs, or one more than Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley. The team's average ranks second-to-last in the majors.

On the opposite end, four Nationals pitchers have ERAs below their career averages. The other, Bergmann, has sliced his in half in the two starts he's had since returning from Class AAA Columbus. Those 14 innings, all scoreless, suggest that Washington hasn't just found a stopgap starter, but a starter for the long term.

"We're in a good position to win these games -- and that's the best feeling right there," Bergmann said. "We'd been in some games this year where we had no chance at all, and most of that was my fault. I think we have a pretty good lineup. They may be scuffling a little bit, but we've just got to keep working with what we've got."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company