Nats Tally Nothing A 2nd Straight Game

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008

PHOENIX, June 1 -- After all those zeroes, their clubhouse was silent, just like their offense. Washington Nationals players buttoned their suits and hurried to board the bus. Some spoke in measured whispers. A few grabbed Styrofoam plates of chicken legs or ribs. Clubhouse attendants moved through the gloom, grabbing luggage and packing bats, used purely for decorative purposes the past two games.

The previous 24 hours, after all, had accounted for two losses and one woeful visual: an inning-by-inning line score of zeroes, repeating until its effect became hypnotic. Sunday's 5-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field -- the team's second consecutive shutout and eighth this season -- felt both similar and worse than the first. Again, the Nationals failed to advance a runner beyond second base. Again, they faced a strong pitcher and made him look masterful.

But after this one, a game in which they were stripped and sold for parts by Arizona pitcher Dan Haren, the rotten offense became impossible to dismiss. No baseball adage can kiss away 18 innings without a run. As a result, the Nationals packed their bags for home -- having finished their West Coast road trip 2-4 -- wondering whether they had a slump or an identity.

"I mean, there's not much to say," second baseman Felipe López said. "Just terrible. I'm embarrassed. I know they're good pitchers, but still."

In the clubhouse where López spoke, the opinions outnumbered the hits. Center fielder Lastings Milledge talked with forced optimism about Monday's off-day -- a much-needed rest that could rejuvenate things. In his office, tucked away from the row of lockers and couches, Manager Manny Acta mentioned the caliber of Arizona's pitchers, including Brandon Webb on Saturday; losing to guys like him, he said, isn't unusual.

Near one sofa, hitting coach Lenny Harris tried to maintain hope for a turnaround, suggesting that his players -- especially the young guys -- were still working hard. Just a matter of time, he said, before everything clicks and the bats stop plaguing a season. "You look at it, we're only 8 1/2 games out in a division that's really not doing anything," he said. "We really haven't hit since the first three games of the season; we haven't hit a hot streak yet. We have the talent here. It's just up to the guys to do it."

In front of his locker, third baseman Aaron Boone -- a regular since Ryan Zimmerman left the lineup -- sat down and propped one leg, wrapped in ice, on an abutting folding chair. When somebody asked him to diagnose the offensive problems, he needed five seconds to begin his answer.

"Well, I mean you know," he said.

Five more seconds.

"I don't know how to answer that. Why?"

Ten more seconds; the cameras were filming a silent movie.

"I don't know," he finally said. "We have some young guys learning on the fly, without a track record, and sometime there are some pains with that."

After failing to score in the top of the first, the Nationals quickly fell behind. Starter Shawn Hill felt none of the forearm or elbow discomfort that hindered his latest starts, but he lacked movement on his fastball, and later gave a blistering self-assessment. (What happened today? "I [stunk]," he said. Which pitches betrayed you today? "Everything," he said.)

Three batters in, following Orlando Hudson's home run to right-center, the Diamondbacks had a 3-0 lead.

And that goes a long way against a team that could take its swings with No. 2 pencils and not diminish the end result.

For the game, the Nationals managed four hits and struck out seven times. In the fifth, Haren threw a 91-mph fastball inside to Wily Mo Peña. Peña swung, tapping the pitch foul, and his 35-inch, 33-ounce maple bat decomposed into shards. One piece tumbled into fair territory. With something in his hand resembling a sword, Peña walked over to a bat boy and exchanged the damaged splinter for a new bat.

One pitch later, he grounded out to third.

"We're throwing out there big league hitters, especially young guys -- we're counting on them because of their potential," Acta said. "That just hasn't happened, but we'll keep throwing them out there, we'll keep working hard and be patient. That's how you build. You throw them out there, and you see who's going to be part of the future here and who's not."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company