Nats' Chico, Relievers Thrashed

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008

Certainly science has a name for this, the kind of implosion too vast for common math to quantify.

The final score last night at Nationals Park -- Philadelphia 12, Washington 2 -- suggests a rare brand of unwatchable baseball, but it scarcely articulates how the Nationals, for 2 hours 58 minutes, failed to perform in almost any capacity. Relief pitching faltered. Hitting stuttered in the clutch. "It snowballed," first baseman Dmitri Young said.

Now, an off day allows them to inspect the damage they'd likely rather forget.

Eight, as a stand-alone number, tells you how many runs the Phillies scored in the sixth inning when this game devolved from contest to blowout. But it ignores the particulars -- the six runs relief pitcher Jes┬┐s Colome surrendered in exchange for one out, or the 13 hitters Philadelphia sent to the plate, or the decibel level of mock-cheers the 28,055 at Nationals Park aimed at the home team as it departed the field, excused from this spectacle by the third out.

To tell the full story, you need a full line of numbers.

Seven: That's how many runners the Nationals left on base in the first four innings, before things got out of hand. "That set the tone for us, basically," Manager Manny Acta said. "We had the opportunity to score some runs and weren't able to. Just a poor approach."

Seventy-four, 76, 80: Those are the pitch speeds, among others, used by Philadelphia starter Jamie Moyer, 45, to twice dispose of Elijah Dukes during early-game first-and-third situations. In one at-bat, Dukes swung at three pitches and never even fouled one off. In another at-bat, Dukes was frozen by a Moyer offspeed pitch that crossed the outside corner slowly enough to laugh on the way by.

Two: That's how many home runs Nationals starter Matt Chico allowed in the fifth inning, both coming when he was ahead in the count.

Oh, and zero: That's how many runs the Nationals scored in the first six innings last night, running their scoreless streak to 16 and punctuating one of their most lopsided losses of the young season.

Asked, simply, how the Nationals hitters could switch their approach -- especially with runners on base -- Acta said: "How about putting the bat on the ball? Instead of striking out with runners on third and less than two outs. I think it's pretty clear."

Before the game, General Manager Jim Bowden stood behind the cages, watching batting practice. The players who rotated in and out were part of a lineup in need of confidence, not a lashing. Dukes, for instance, batting eighth, entered the game with a track record suggesting he's an easier out than any other position player in baseball. Removing pitchers from consideration, nobody in baseball who'd recorded a hit in 2008 had a lower average. The next-poorest batting position player was Toronto's Adam Lind, 1 for 19.

Talking to the media, then, Bowden tried his best to provide a framework for what he called "growing pains." Not everybody on the roster, he admitted, is major league-ready. But players such as Dukes require a crash course, one that will continue until prospects in the minors -- Mike Daniel and Justin Maxwell, among those he named -- indicate they're stronger options.

"I'll always say this," Bowden said. "[Players] will develop and learn quicker [in the big leagues]. It's just very painful to watch."

From the start, the Nationals faced a handicap. Scheduled starter Shawn Hill missed the outing because of elbow pain, forcing Acta to bring Chico (0-6) in from the bullpen. Chico, of course, had made seven starts this season. When Washington sent the 24-year-old left-hander to the bullpen, he had a 6.87 ERA.

Last night, he lacked precise command, and a high mistake to Ryan Howard turned into an upper deck home run -- but Chico handed the game to the bullpen with the outcome still in doubt. Problem was, the three relievers who finished the last four innings threw a combined 118 pitches. The sixth inning featured a tragicomedy of wild pitches, errors on throws, another Howard home run and a pitching change. It ended with Washington trailing 12-0.

When asked following the game if the aftertaste of such a performance would linger into the off day -- the Nationals' first since May 5 -- Acta said he'd be too busy to worry about it. He had a packed schedule, after all. A meeting in the morning. Another meeting in the afternoon. And at night, a party at the Dominican embassy.

"So," he said, "I won't really have time to think about those eight runs in the sixth."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company